TMJ pain: if you’ve suffered from it, you probably already know what it is. If you haven’t, it may require a bit of visualization to make the connection. Some might say TMJ is jaw pain, or something that causes a clicking in your jaw when you open and close your mouth widely.
There’s a lot more to know about what the TMJ is, and when it poses a problem.
What is the TMJ?
TMJ stands for the temporomandibular joint. It’s an important joint formed by your skull and your jaw bone and involves the muscles needed for chewing.1 Your TMJ acts like a sliding hinge, and connects your jawbone to your skull. It is responsible for opening and closing your mouth, allowing the jaw to move smoothly up and down and side to side, and enables you to talk, chew, and yawn.1,2 A common mistake people make is referring to TMJ pain simply as TMJ. When you experience pain in this area, your chiropractor or dentist may refer to it as a temporomandibular disorder, or TMD.
What Causes TMJ Pain?
The bones of the joint are separated by a disc of cartilage to keep your jaw movement smooth.3 When muscles are irritated, the disc is displaced, or if you have arthritis or another joint disease, the smoothness may be disrupted. Common signs of discomfort are popping, clicking, muscle tenderness, joint tenderness, or being unable to open your jaw as wide as possible.4
There are three main categories of the type of pain you may experience in this joint: 1) myofascial pain, or pain in the muscles that control the jaw and the connecting neck and shoulder muscles (this is the most common form); 2) internal derangement of the joint, or a dislocated or displaced disc; and 3) a degenerative joint disease, like arthritis, in the jaw joint.5 Things that can increase your risk of developing TMD are jaw injury, stress, or grinding and clenching of teeth.3
How Can I Manage TMJ Pain?
There are conservative steps you can take to treat or reverse TMJ-related pain, including eating softer foods, applying ice packs, avoiding extreme jaw movements, learning techniques to relax and reduce stress, and practicing gentle stretching of the jaw to help increase its movement.2 Spinal manipulative therapy, soft tissue massage, and exercises have also been shown to reduce pain and symptoms.1,5,6
Another treatment that has been proven to help is intraoral myofascial release, a technique certain healthcare practitioners, such as chiropractors, can use to release the muscles surrounding the joint, accessing them from the inner side of a person’s cheeks.7 The TMJ is a joint after all, and chiropractors are experts on muscles and joints and can assess the function of your TMJ and help determine the best way to manage your pain.
Whatever method you choose to alleviate your TMJ pain—self-care, cognitive behavioural therapy, or co-management between a dentist and your chiropractor—know that there are options that can help. You can talk to your chiropractor to help choose the method that is right for you.
1 Yuill E, Howitt S. Temporomandibular joint: conservative care of TMJ dysfunction in a competitive swimmer. J Can Chiropr Assoc. 2009;53(3): 165-72. 2 TMJ Disorders. National Institute of Health website. https://www.nidcr.nih.gov/oralhealth/Topics/TMJ/TMJDisorders.htm. Published April 2015. Accessed February 14, 2017. 3 TMJ disorders: Overview. Mayo Clinic website. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/tmj/home/ovc-20209398. Accessed February 1, 2017. 4 George JW, Fennema J, Maddox A, Nessler M, Skaggs CD. The effect of cervical spine manual therapy on normal mouth opening in asymptomatic subjects. J Chiropr Med. 2007; 6(4): 141-5. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jcme.2007.08.001. 5 Vinjamury SP, Singh BB, Khorsan R, Comberiati R, Meier M, Holm S. Chiropractic treatment of temporomandibular disorders. Altern Ther Health Med. 2008; 14(4): 60-3. 6 Brantingham JW, Cassa TK, Bonnefin D, et al. Manipulative and multimodal therapy for upper extremity and temporomandibular disorders: A systematic review. J Manipulative Physiol Ther. 2013; 36(3): 143-201. doi: 10.1016/j.jmpt.2013.04.001. 7 Randhawa K, Bohay R, Côté P, et al. The effectiveness of noninvasive interventions for temporomandibular disorders: A systematic review by the Ontario Protocol for Traffic Injury Management (OPTIMa) Collaboration. Clin J Pain. 2016; 32(3): 260-78. doi: 10.1097/AJP.0000000000000247.