If you’ve experienced jaw pain, jaw noises (like clicking, popping, or grinding), a slight locking of your jaw, or even ear pain or headaches, it’s possible you have a temporomandibular joint disorder. TMJ disorders affect anywhere from 20 to 30 percent of adults.
The term “TMJ” is often used to refer to TMJ disorders, though the initialism by itself actually refers only to the joint. The two TMJs on nearly every mammal are located at the points where the ends of the jawbone connect to the skull, just inside the temples (“temporo-” refers to the temporal region of the skull, and “-mandibular” refers to the mandible, or jawbone). The associated symptoms of the disorder are more accurately labeled as “TMJ disorders”, “TMJD”, or “TMD”.
The causes of TMD are not specifically known, and are thought to span a number of physiological systems, such as dental, neuromuscular, neurological, and musculoskeletal. Evidence also suggests a psycho-somatic cause, as stress and anxiety can cause undue and constant contraction of the jaw muscles.
Treatment for TMJ disorders can vary depending on the severity of the condition and the manifestation of the disorder. but TMJ disorders rarely require surgery. An occlusional splint (a plastic guard worn over some or all of the upper or lower teeth) can help align the bite pattern and jaw muscles to a position that may help alleviate some symptoms. Certain TMJ exercises can help to loosen and relax the jaw muscles. The AMA strongly recommends that only non-permanent and fully reversible treatments be carried out for TMD.
The good news is that TMD, while uncomfortable and frustrating, usually goes away on its own, both in individual instances and in the life of the syndrome itself. By the time an affected person reaches early middle age (40 years and up), symptoms have either subsided to a highly manageable degree or disappeared altogether. However, TMJ surgery does exist for diagnostic purposes and treatment. If you feel your case is more severe than average, see your doctor to see if more can be done. More on this topic.