TMJ Pain & Headaches

Temporomandibular disorder or TMD is a broad term referring to problems with the jaws and their functioning. It is commonly referred to as “TMJ” or TMJ disorder (TMJD). This system is very complex and problems are caused by a variety of factors. Our website will attempt to give you a general overview of TMD so you can better understand the problems you may have been having.

TMJ Pain & The Temporomandibular System

The temporomandibular system consists of three basic components; the temporomandibular joint or TMJ, the teeth, and the neuromuscular system.

TMJ – The temporomandibular joint connects the lower jaw, called the mandible, to the bone at the side of the head the temporal bone. If you place your fingers just in front of your ears and open your mouth, you can feel the joints. Because these joints are flexible, the jaw can move smoothly up and down and side to side, enabling us to talk, chew and yawn. Muscles attached to and surrounding the jaw joint control its position and movement. Their close proximity to the ear is why some patients experience ear symptoms and can often hear the joint pop or crack. These two joints never act alone, that is, when your jaw functions, both joints will be working. There is a small cartilage disc between your lower jaw and skull in the joint. Some TMD problems are caused by dysfunction of this disk. When healthy it acts as a sort of “shock absorber” for the joint.

Teeth – The teeth are like the third leg of a tripod, the TMJs being the other two legs. The alignment of your bite and the functioning of the TMJs are intimately connected. Problems in any of the three areas may affect the other two.

Neuromuscular – This system is the nerves and muscles which work the temporomandibular system. It is important to realize that only the lower jaw, or mandible, moves during jaw function. The upper jaw, or maxilla, does not move; it is firmly attached to the skull. Therefore, the nerves and muscles are involved in moving the lower jaw only. The nerves transmit the messages for the muscles to move the jaw. They also transmit pain signals to the brain causing you to feel discomfort. The muscles are fairly large and are found from the side of your head down to your neck. Other related muscles that do not specifically work the jaw, but are sometimes symptomatic are found in the neck, face, and upper back.

What Defines TMD

I find there are sometimes multiple factors involved, including stress, poor physical condition, lack of exercise, poor diet, previous injury to the neck or face, neck and back problems, imbalances in other parts of the body, dental problems, nerve or neurological problems

Symptoms and signs of TMD can include some or all of the following….

  • Pain in the facial muscles and jaw joints
  • Headaches, usually at the temples and side of head
  • Vague tooth soreness or toothaches which often move around the mouth
  • Sensitive teeth
  • You may feel pain every time you talk, chew, or yawn.
  • Reduced ability to open or close the mouth
  • Pain and fatigue when eating hard or chewy foods
  • When the joints move, you may hear sounds, such as clicking, grating, and/or popping.
  • Ear pain sometimes people mistake TMJ pain for an ear problem, such as an ear infection, when the ear is not the problem at all.
  • Cervical neck tension and pain
  • Tooth wear
  • Awareness of grinding/clenching teeth while sleeping or awake (Bruxism)
  • A pattern of breaking or cracking teeth with no other cause, i.e. tooth decay or trauma
  • History of medically diagnosed migraine headaches (common  incidence of concurrent TMD)
  • TMJ and Facial Questionnaire

TMJTemporomandibular disorders come in many forms and varying degrees of severity. Basically TMD is a problem when you either experience pain and/or a loss of jaw function. The pain can range from a mild ache in the morning to a chronic debilitating pain. Loss of function can be mild jaw stiffness to being unable to open the jaw barely at all.

The symptoms of TMD can be an obvious jaw pain in the muscles near the mouth, but can also often exhibit as headache at the temples (“temporal  headache”). This is due to inflammation in the large jaw closing temporalis muscle which is on either side of your head. To find this muscle place your hands on your temples and clench your teeth hard and you will feel this powerful muscle contract. Patients often feel this symptom is a tension headache or sinus headache but it can be easily differentiated during a TMD exam. Patients understandably  (and many doctors) fail to make this connection between TMD and headaches.

The pain of TMD can come from either the muscles or the TM joint itself; often it comes from a combination of the two. The muscles can ache due to causes discussed below. Pain in the joint is usually due to inflammation within the structure itself. Sometimes the symptoms are found in other facial structures; such as dull ear pain, toothache, neck pain, etc. This referred pain is fairly common but it is important to rule out medical and dental causes of these pains prior to TMD treatment.

Loss of jaw function can be due to muscular and/or joint problems as well, just as pain can. The degree to which each is involved is determined through thorough history and exam.

Causes of TMD

Temporomandibular disorders rarely have a single cause. Any one of the following factors may contribute to TMD. Each patient presents with an individual combination of factors that are determined during history taking and clinical exam.

Trauma -Acute trauma to the jaws such as a car accident, a punch to the jaw, a fall etc. can cause damage to the muscles and/or joint. The acute pain and loss of function is usually responsive to conservative treatment. Sometimes trauma to the joint can cause chronic damage such as bruxism (grinding of the teeth) and clenching (jaw tightening) which may eventually contribute to a TMD problem at a later time. Muscle involvement causes inflammation of the membranes surrounding the joint.

Bruxism – Bruxism is the technical term for grinding (sliding your teeth back and forth over each other) and clenching (tightly hold your top and bottom teeth together) of the teeth that may cause facial pain.

Generally, most of us grind to some degree mostly during sleep. Some people do this very hard to the point where they wear the enamel from their teeth. This bruxing is done by the jaw muscles and by the morning they can be painful due to fatigue. This constant pressure also can damage the TMJs over time. Bruxism is the most common factor found in TMD.

Malocclusion– This term means “bad bite”. Sometimes when the teeth do not bite together in harmony with the shape and position of the joints it can place pressure on the joints. Missing teeth can sometimes contribute to this as well. The misalignment can also put strain on the jaw muscles. This factor can be mild to severe. Though the bite is an important part of the whole system it is only altered after conservative measures and only if it is felt improvement will result. In some patients discrepancies (known as interferences) become apparent after wearing the NTI device for a few months and a bite adjustment is recommended. Treatment of the bite for TMD is usually not needed but its contribution to the whole must be examined.

Emotion – Emotional stress often plays an integral role in the development of TMD. This occurs due to two basic reasons. Stress increases both the severity and duration of bruxism while asleep. Also, many will subconsciously clench and/or grind their teeth more while awake during times of stress. The other way stress contributes to TMD is that during times of stress your adaptability and pain threshold will go down. As a result you are more likely to experience symptoms of TMD if other factors already exist (bruxing, joint damage, etc.).

Emotional conditions beyond daily life stress can contribute to TMD as well. Depression, anxiety disorders, and the like can often have TMD problems arise. These conditions are quite stressful and it is not hard to imagine why TMD would develop.

Ergonomic – Maintain good posture, especially if you work all day at a computer. Pause often to change position, rest your hands and arms, and relieve stressed muscles.

ArthritisOsteoarthritis: Like other joints in the body, the jaw joint is prone to undergo arthritic changes. These changes are sometimes caused by breakdown of the joint (degeneration) or normal aging. Degenerative joint disease causes a slow progressive loss of cartilage and formation of new bone at the surface of the joint. Cartilage destruction is a result of several mechanical and biological factors rather than a single entity. Its prevalence increases with repetitive bruxing, as well as with normal aging. Immunologic and inflammatory diseases contribute to the progress of the disease. Rheumatoid arthritis causes inflammation in joints and can affect the TMJ, especially in children. As it progresses, the disease can cause destruction of cartilage and erode bone, deforming joints. It is an autoimmune disease.

TMD Treatment

Treatment plans for TMD are as varied as the patients that present with it. Each patient must be treated differently depending on the uniqueness of their problems and the contributing factors.

It is very important to realize that the goal of TMD treatment is to minimize pain and establish a return to function. TMD conditions are not “cured” but are managed instead. The basic goal is to allow the muscles and joints to heal through rest and care. Often damage to the joint itself cannot be reversed, but the body can often heal it enough to return to function without pain. We also want to teach you to recognize the symptoms early and manage them yourself once we give you the tools to do so. This condition can often recur later on but early care can minimize the severity.

The basic philosophy of treatment is to do the conservative and reversible treatments first. Be cautious about any nonreversible treatment method, such as orthodontics or surgery that permanently changes your bite. Reconstructive surgery of the jaw, or joint replacement, is rarely required. In fact, studies have shown that the results are often worse than before surgery.

Most patients respond well to simpler care.

The following treatment modalities may be used in each case..

Occlusal Splint – a splint or bite plate. This is a plastic guard that fits over your upper and lower teeth, much like a mouth guard in sports. The splint can help reduce clenching and teeth grinding, especially if worn at night. This will ease muscle tension.

Also called a night guard, or the new FDA approved NTI Device, are is designed to protect the teeth from further wear. These also will reduce the severity of grinding at night and allow the muscles to rest. In more severe cases it needs to be worn all day as well to allow the TMJs and muscles to rest.

The NTI Device is much easier to wear than traditional night guards and is fit to your teeth in only one appointment. It attaches to your front two teeth only and does not allow the posterior teeth to touch at all. This alignment suppresses clenching over ninety per cent, giving the jaw muscles a break. Also, since the teeth are out of contact no wear occurs. The NTI has also received FDA clearance as an adjunct for the treatment of medically diagnosed migraine pain.

Jaw Rest – You must rest your jaw for it to heal. The occlusal splint will help somewhat but other steps should be taken. Imagine a person who jogs several miles a day and one of his/her legs is several inches shorter than the other leg. Over time, this jogger has come to experience pain and tightness in the muscles of the leg and even the muscles of the back, shoulders and neck from the stress (jogging) an unbalanced system. This jogger may even be experiencing popping, clicking, or other sounds in the knee or hip joints and may have damaged the ligaments, cartilage, and muscles of the leg, knee, or hip. In this analogy, the first thing many therapists would do is place a “lift” in the shoe of the short leg, so that both legs are the same length, and instruct the jogger to stop jogging for a while (take the stress off the damaged system), take anti-inflammatory medication (Advil, Motrin, etc.), and apply cold or heat to the painful areas. The therapist would then let time pass and see how the patient recovered. Many patients would recover with this conservative treatment. If the jogger’s symptoms persisted after a reasonable amount of time had passed, then physical therapy, etc, might be implemented. Chewing gum would not be a good idea if you have jaw pain. Eat a diet of soft foods.

Medication – Pain medication may be prescribed. Anti-inflammatory pain medications such as aspirin or acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil) may ease the pain of TMJ syndrome. Occasionally a mild muscle relaxant may be prescribed. Narcotic medications are not very helpful in treating TMD and are rarely prescribed.

Moist Heat – Moist heat is very helpful for the sore muscles of TMD. The penetrating moist heat promotes blood flow into the muscle which aids in healing and relaxation of the muscle as well. This increased blood flow also helps analgesic/ anti inflammatory medications into the muscles. A microwavable heat pack is often helpful.

Exercises – Some simple jaw and neck exercises which will help the muscles stretch. Some people find that placing a bag of ice chips (or a bag of frozen peas) on the muscle area will cool the muscle and relieve some of the inflammation.

Physical Therapy – Physical therapy can help relax the muscles, increase joint flexibility, and the like. We can do some simple stretching therapy in the office if needed. If you need more involved therapy you will be referred to a physical therapist.

Occlusal Adjustment – Bite discrepancies that aggravate TMD symptoms may be corrected through a minor reshaping of the teeth (balancing your occlusion (bite)) in harmony with the proper jaw joint alignment.

Stress Management – Emotion and stress plays an important role in TMD. TMD may be a sign that the patient is under stress that they are not quite aware of. Anything that helps you relieve stress is helpful, such as reading, exercising, listening to music, and the like. If the stress is getting to be a bit much, counseling is often helpful to learn stress management. Counseling is also recommended if you feel you need help with any emotional problem. It is almost impossible to get relief from TMD if the underlying emotional issues are not addressed.

Referral – If your facial pain or T.M.J. dysfunction does not improve to your satisfaction, then I may suggest other treatments, such as physical therapy, chiropractic treatment, medical evaluation and treatment, diet control weight loss, vitamins and supplements, exercise, stretching, stress reduction, and possibly, counseling to uncover causes of stress and methods of dealing with them. Very severe cases may be referred from the start to a pain center. Be cautious about any nonreversible treatment method, such as orthodontics or surgery that permanently changes your bite. Surgery is recommended only as a last resort in most cases.