When it comes to temporomandibular joint dysfunction (TMJ or TMJD), over 10 million Americans have it at one time or another, and 90 percent of those seeking treatment are women 30-50 years old. Still, the causes and symptoms of this facial pain are not completely understood, and it can be challenging to diagnose since the symptoms are similar to those of toothaches, headaches and ear infection.
It’s only been since the 1950s that TMJ and its role in how the face, jaw and neck function was addressed by the healthcare community. It wasn’t until the 1980s that it was more consistently diagnosed and treated.
Before this time, when people with unexplained pain such as jaw pain, headaches or earaches complained, symptoms were considered psychogenic (where the origin of the disorder was considered psychological rather than physical). Even after running tests and ruling out cavities, sinus infections, and tumors, they were eventually sent home with no definitive cause. Doctors just thought the pain was created in the patient’s mind (similar to how fibromyalgia was initially treated by doctors).
Thankfully, diagnosing and treatment evolved in the 80s when healthcare professionals took a closer look into the science. What they discovered changed the face of TMJD forever! For example, one of the discoveries was the connection between this disorder and arthritis, which led to relieving this pain using medications.
Since the temporomandibular joint connects the jaw to the skull, problems with this joint can cause all sorts of issues, including jaw pain, neck, shoulder and back pain, headaches, and stiff jaw muscles. Treatment can vary from doing jaw exercises, making dietary adjustments, wearing bite splints or having surgery.
After dentists noticed the connection between issues in the jaw among sufferers with the same conditions, the medical community began connecting the dots between these patients’ symptoms and the joint. It helped that the number of adults who were experiencing jaw issues (particularly women) were on board with joining studies so they could find relief for their symptoms. As more research was done and studies were published, diagnosing TMJD became more recognized, especially after the link between TMJ and rheumatoid arthritis was made.
In the beginning, treatment was limited to prescribing pain medications, but this approach eventually shifted. Remember how in the beginning doctors thought it was psychological? Some of the risk factors (like teeth grinding and jaw clenching) that cause jaw inflammation can be stress-related, so including psychological approaches to treatment are valid today. More recent studies show that emotional distress like anxiety, depression or anger are risk factors for developing TMJ disorders.
Treatment for TMJD may involve any of the following:
– Applying a cold and hot compress to the sore joints
– Performing jaw stretches and exercises to relax the muscles
– Sticking to soft or bite-sized foods that allow the chewing muscles and joints to rest and heal
– Practicing relaxation techniques including meditation, biofeedback
– Taking over-the-counter and prescription pain medications
– Wearing nighttime dental appliances to take the pressure off the joints and prevent bruxism
Research into TMJD is ongoing today, and if you are experiencing pain when you open and close your mouth, aching pain in and around your ear, or trouble chewing, you might benefit from treatment that can help relieve your symptoms. We invite you to reach out to our team and experience the relief you need!