Jaw Pain and TMJ Disorder: Causes, Symptoms, Treatment, and Exercises

Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder can lead to jaw pain in life. Learn how this disorder can be treated

TMJ disorder can impact the way you eat, talk, and live daily

Even though the jaw and ears are separate parts of the body, the temporomandibular jointm (TMJ) plays a key role to both and enables various functions in our daily lives.

The TMJ is situated beside the temporal bone that contains the inner ear. The TMJ has a lot of tasks, such as enabling you to chew and talk by moving in many directions. TMJ jaw pain may be caused by a TMJ disorder which affecta about 10 to 15 percent of adults.

The pain can be caused by temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ dysfunction), a medical condition which affects the jaw but the pain can be experienced across the ears and mouth. This referred pain occurs when a body part experiences the pain that originated in another part. Read on to find out more about this disorder, how it originates in the TM joint but can have repurcussions for the rest of the face and mouth.


Looking for a dentist?
Find dentists near you and book your next appointment online

What is the Temporomandibular Joint?

The temporomandibular joint attaches the lower jaw and the temporal bone (the bone present at the side of the head). You can feel these joints if you place a finger in front of your ears and open your mouth. These joints are quite flexible, and so they allow the jaw to move smoothly, thus allowing us to talk, yawn and chew.

What are the TMJ disorders that cause TMJ dysfunction?

There are several different disorders of the jaw joint and chewing muscles, and the way people respond to them also varies. There are three main categories that the conditions fall into:

  1. Myofascial pain comprises discomfort that is felt in the muscles which control jaw function
  2. Internal derangement of the joint entails a displaced disc, injury to the condyle or a dislocated jaw
  3. Arthritis induced degeneration of the joints can include the temporomandibular joint.

A person can suffer from one or more of the above conditions simultaneously. Some people also have other conditions besides TMJ dysfunction, such as chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia or sleep disturbances.

Although these disorders have some similar symptoms which may hint at a common underlying disease mechanism, it is not confirmed whether they share a common cause. There is still research to be performed for this.

What are the symptoms of TMJ dysfunction?

One of the fundamental symptoms of TMJ dysfunction is aching jaw pain, which can vary in intensity from mild to severe. Usually the discomfort is felt in the jaw, however, it can also be felt in the areas around it such as the face, ears, and teeth. The pain may also spread to the top of the head, the neck or shoulders, causing migraines.

The pain often becomes stronger while chewing. Moreover, it can also worsen through yawning or talking for an extended period of time. Some other signs and symptoms linked with TMJ disorders include:

  • Discomfort or pain in the face, jaw pain, neck, shoulders, and TMJ ear pain, in or around ears upon chewing, speaking, or opening of the mouth.
  • Pain when you open your mouth wide
  • Jaws that remain stuck in the closed or opened-mouth positions
  • Clicking, grating, or popping noise in the jaw joint upon opening or closing the mouth
  • Tiredness of the face
  • Trouble while chewing, or an abrupt discomfort while biting, as if the teeth do not fit well
  • Swollen face

How is a TMJ disorder diagnosed?

Various other issues such as tooth decay, sinusitis, arthritis or gum disease lead to similar disorders. A dentist is likely to inquire about your medical history and take a physical exam to detect any TMJ dysfunction if they come across any of these issues, and see if it's connected to TMJ problems.

They will examine your jaw joints for discomfort, tenderness, and listen for clicking, popping or grating sounds upon movement to determine the origin of TMJ pain. They would also ensure whether it is normal in its functioning and does not get stuck when you close or open your mouth. Furthermore, they will also check for problems in your facial muscles and test your bite.

Full face x-rays may be taken by your dentist to look at your jaws, temporomandibular joints, and teeth to ensure that other problems don’t exist. This will also determine the origin or cause of the ear and jaw pain. They may also conduct further tests, like computer tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). The MRI can depict whether the TMJ disc is in the proper position with the movement of your jaw. Whereas, a CT scan can show the details about the bones of the joint.

The dentist may direct you to an oral surgeon for more care and treatment. This specialist undertakes surgery in and around the whole face, jaw area, and mouth. You may also be required to visit an orthodontist to make sure that your teeth, joints, and muscles work as they should.

How are TMJ disorders and pain treated?

There are various treatments that can be tried to ease the symptoms of TMJ disorders and TMJ pain. Your doctor will be able to recommend the most suitable treatment for you depending on the cause of your issue.

In case you only experience popping, clicking or grating sounds while chewing, and no other symptoms but ear and jaw pain, treatment is likely to be conservatively managed.

Are there any self-care and home treatments for TMJ disorders?

Among many people, their symptoms improve over time without any treatment. In the meantime though, the pain and discomfort can be alleviated through steps that you can take yourself. Some self-care tips for TMJ disorders are as follows:

  • Giving rest to the jaw by consuming soft and easily-to-swallow foods
  • Avoiding hard or chewy foods ice or nuts
  • Trying muscle relaxing and stretching exercises
  • Using heat packs often throughout the day to relieve the pain

Keeping stress controlled is essential if it is intensifying the symptoms. Stress-reducing exercises include deep breathing exercises and meditation. Muscle relaxation and daily exercise through swimming or running can also prove effective.

Medication for TMJ treatment

Medicines may be prescribed for temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ disorder) by the doctor if self-care steps don’t seem to work.

  • Painkillers can reduce the pain of certain TMJ disorders in the short term. Ibuprofen and other Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs) are also usually recommended to relax jaw pain.
  • Benzodiazepines and other muscle relaxants can ease muscle pain. These medications are usually only advised for a short time period – mostly 10 days
  • Certain kinds of antidepressants have also proved to be helpful in easing pain for some people
  • Injections into the muscles that are involved in movements of the jaw may also help with the pain caused by TMJ disorders
  • In some cases, TMJ exercises are also recommended.

Your doctor should discuss the usual side-effect of such medications, along with their risks and benefits. Always consult a medical professional before using any medicines, as the information provided here is not a substitute for professional medical advice.

Physiotherapy for TMJ disorders

Seeking treatment from a physiotherapist can relieve the discomfort and movement issues connected with TMJ disorders by recommending TMJ exercises. Some of the therapies that may be tried are:

  • Massaging
  • Certain jaw muscle exercises to relieve jaw pain
  • Use of mild electrical currents through electrodes which are pasted onto the skin, referred to as transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS)
  • Electromyographic feedback (biofeedback), which helps you in learning to relax your jaw muscles.

Dental treatment options

If the TMJ disorder has been caused by teeth grinding at night, wearing a mouthguard while sleeping may prove helpful. Through the prevention of teeth grinding and clenching, a mouthguard can help relieve the tension in your jaw and help ease TMJ pain.

Oral splints can also be tried during daytime to give relaxation to the jaw muscles and check damage to the teeth caused by grinding.

Surgery for TMJ disorders

Open-joint or arthroscopic surgery may be recommended to people suffering from severe TMJ dysfunction with problems in the structure of the joints. However, surgery is commonly limited to only those whose symptoms do not improve through other treatment options.

The benefits and drawbacks of different surgery options will be shared by your doctor and if they would be apt in your case.

Alternative therapies for TMJ disorders

Acupuncture may also be helpful in reducing TMJ pain. However, more research is needed to fully back its effectiveness.

Low-level laser therapy and injecting hyaluronic acid have also been examined for pain relief in TMJ syndrome. More research is needed to confirm their safety and effectiveness.

Looking for a dentist?
Find dentists near you and book your next appointment online

Frequently Asked Questions

Is surgery the only treatment option for this disorder?

There are several other treatment methods to try other than surgery for TMJ disorders. For example, if the cause for the disorder is found to be stress, the most convenient solution may be stress alleviation exercises. Similarly, the recommended treatment depends on the origin of TMJ jaw pain or ear pain.

What are the most common symptoms of TMJ Disorder?

● Pain in the head and jaw pain ● Ear issues including muffled or clogged ears, otalgia and dizziness ● Clicking, popping or grating sounds while chewing ● Pain in the throat, face, neck, back, shoulders, and eyes.

Looking for a dentist?
Find dentists near you and book your next appointment online