Understanding Your TMJ Disorder Diagnosis
Day in and day out, we trust even the most complex parts of our bodies to function the way they should. We don’t think about whether our fingers will be able to fly across our keyboards at work, or whether our jaws will work smoothly, allowing us to enjoy a delicious meal or laugh at someone’s joke. We just do it! It’s often not until part of our body stops working that we give it much thought.
Your jaw is one of these working parts, containing a complex system of joints, muscles, and nerves that allow us to interact with the world by helping us eat, speak, laugh, and even swallow.
When these complex parts don’t work together perfectly, though, it can lead to a ripple effect of symptoms, not just in your jaw, but throughout your entire body, known as TMJ disorder. This condition might sound concerning, but it doesn’t have to be. Resolving the cause of this disorder can relieve or erase your TMJ symptoms, so there’s plenty of hope to be had in this diagnosis!
Still, understanding the condition better can help you feel more comfortable with it and give you the knowledge you need to take a more active role in your treatment. With that in mind, we’ve put together a guide on TMJ disorder to help you go back to enjoying simple moments like a meal or a joke without worrying about your jaw.
What is TMJ disorder?
TMJ disorder, also known as TMD or temporomandibular joint disorder, is an umbrella term for a problem with any of the joints, muscles, ligaments, or nerves that enable your jaws to function. Although the specific cause can vary, it results in symptoms that can make even simple tasks like eating and speaking difficult or painful. If you’ve never heard of TMD before, you’re not alone—many people haven’t! Despite this, it’s a common condition that affects up to 15% of adults.
What causes TMJ disorder?
Since it’s an umbrella term rather than a condition with a specific, consistent cause, there are a lot of potential reasons you may be suffering from TMD. Common causes include an injury to your jaw, a joint condition like arthritis or Ehler-Danlos Syndrome, weak jaw muscles, a malocclusion or misaligned bite, and bruxism (the habitual clenching or grinding of your teeth). Malocclusions and bruxism can both put additional stress on your jaw in different ways.
In the case of malocclusions, this stress is often the result of your jaw being held in a position that isn’t ideal, forcing the muscles to work harder as your jaw carries out daily tasks, and potentially preventing them from relaxing fully.
Bruxism, on the other hand, puts additional pressure on your jaw in a very literal sense, which can keep your jaw working hard constantly because you clench or grind your teeth in your sleep without even realizing it. Since stress often leads to habits like bruxism, it’s also a very common cause of TMD.
What are the symptoms of this disorder?
Everything in your body is connected, and your temporomandibular joints are no different. In fact, because they’re so complex and so important to vital, everyday tasks, TMJ symptoms can be surprisingly wide-ranging. They stretch far beyond the confines of your jaws themselves, leading to symptoms that you may not have even realized are connected to your TMD, including:
- Jaw pain.
- Muscle soreness and tension in your jaw, neck, shoulders, and back.
- Temporary hearing loss.
- Frequent or severe headaches.
- Difficulty chewing, speaking, or opening your mouth wide.
- Lockjaw, where your jaw becomes stuck in an open or closed position.
So, why are these TMJ symptoms so wide-ranging? Problems with your jaw can force the muscles there to work harder than they should. To compensate and help these muscles with their increased workload, the muscles around them try to pick up the slack. This creates a ripple effect where TMJ pain can stretch from your jaw all the way to your back. The resulting tension in your muscles often leads to a TMJ headache. Similarly, inflammation around the joints of your jaw can spread, potentially impacting your ears and causing such symptoms as dizziness.
What are the solutions to treat TMJ disorder?
Thankfully, TMD is far from hopeless! The fact that TMD has a range of causes helps because there’s also a range of solutions. Determining the cause of your TMD is the key to finding a treatment that works for you, so it’s important to find a dentist who is skilled in diagnosing and treating the condition. With such a complex issue, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, so a skilled and experienced dentist like Dr. Staley will identify the cause of your TMD and create a customized treatment plan to gain the best outcome for you.
What your TMJ treatment will involve depends on the cause of your TMD. In some cases, simply strengthening your jaw muscles with specialized TMJ exercises can improve or resolve your symptoms. If the main cause of your TMD is stress, taking steps to lower your stress levels may be the key to your treatment.
There are plenty of ways you can do this, including seeking counseling, making a habit of practicing meditation or mindfulness techniques, exercising regularly, giving yourself free time to relax daily, and removing sources of stress where you can. By reducing your stress levels, these techniques can also help relieve bruxism, but a mouthguard for TMJ can also help relieve the pain bruxism can cause your teeth and jaws and also protect your teeth from injury.
If your TMD is caused by a malocclusion, however, exercises and new habits alone often won’t be enough to resolve your symptoms. In this case, Dr. Staley may recommend realigning your jaw using orthodontic treatments. You may also need new dental restorations to help change the way your upper and lower teeth fit together. With the right treatment, your symptoms—including ones you may not have realized were even connected to your TMD—should improve or vanish altogether.
TMD can make it impossible to forget your jaw and how constantly you use it, while also causing a host of symptoms you never would have connected to your jaws. Thankfully, though, these TMJ-related symptoms don’t have to become your new normal! If you’d like to get started identifying the cause of your TMD and reclaiming pain-free days, feel free to schedule an appointment with Dr. Staley at any time.