When someone has jaw pain, pain in or around the ear, and/or popping or clicking in front of the ear, they’re likely to ask their dentist if they have “TMJ.”
However, this isn’t technically the right question to ask, since EVERYONE has TMJ—two of them, to be accurate.
The term TMJ is an abbreviation that refers to the jaw joint, known as the temporomandibular joint. Everyone has these joints, and they allow us to chew, swallow, speak and keep our airways open.
When someone asks if they have “TMJ,” it is more likely that they have a temporomandibular disorder, or TMD. Even then, TMD is a broad term and not a diagnosis of a specific disorder. There are many possible issues that fall under this blanket, each which may require a different type of treatment (if they require treatment at all)—muscle injuries, bone problems, inflammation of blood vessels, etc.
Most patients with a temporomandibular disorder will have more than one of these, and, for best results, they will require treatment that targets each of the issues that contribute to their symptoms.
Treatment for TMD
Initial treatments for temporomandibular disorders typically include self-care regimens assigned by your provider, exercises, behavioral therapy, physical therapy, bite splints (“nightguards”), and the like. Various medications may also be prescribed, including antidepressants, anti-inflammatories or muscle relaxants. Dietary supplements can help as well. Caution: Athletic-type mouthguards and store-bought bite splints may cause significant injury in many types of TMD and should never be recommended.
It’s only after these options have been explored that more permanent options such as bite adjustments or surgical proceeders will be considered.
A thorough diagnosis of TMD involves an in-depth review of the patient’s medical and dental history, including looking for risk factors for sleep disorders and psychological risks, as well as a thorough physical exam of the head and screening of cranial nerves. Imaging like panoramic x-rays, conebeam CT, and MRI are usually considered and used as appropriately indicated. As there are over forty recognized diagnoses that fall under “TMD,” a thorough approach is required in order to find the source(s) of the problem before an appropriate treatment plan can be developed.
Being told you may have TMD is a starting point, but isn’t enough to determine the best course of treatment for you. If you’ve suffered from any of the symptoms we described above and have ineffective treatment in the past, it’s very likely that you may need a more accurate diagnosis of the real problems behind your pain. Make an appointment with Dr. Huff to find out what a specialist in orofacial pain can do for you.