A Guide to TMJ Pain: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

Medically Reviewed By Nicole Leigh Aaronson, MD, MBA, CPE, FACS, FAAP
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The temporomandibular joint (TMJ) is the joint that links your lower jaw to your skull. It allows you to open and close your mouth so that you can speak and eat. However, for many reasons, the TMJ can become sore and painful, making swallowing and speaking difficult. Doctors call this condition a TMJ disorder. Some healthcare professionals also use the terms “TMJD” and “TMD” to describe this condition.

In the United States, an estimated 10 million people have TMJ disorders.

This article explains TMJ disorders, including their symptoms and causes. It also discusses related diagnoses and treatment options.

What is TMJ pain?

a woman is feeling her jaw against a pink background
ohlamour studio/Stocksy United

The TMJ is a complex joint located just in front of your ear on both sides of your face. It sits on your lower jaw and stretches to the base of your skull. It can move in both vertical and horizontal directions. It is complex because it can glide and hinge, unlike other joints in the body.

The TMJ is covered in muscles and ligaments, which all work together to enable you to chew, speak, and swallow. The joint also has a plate of cartilage called a disc. This disc separates joint movement and streamlines jaw function.

However, the TMJ disc and muscles can become inflamed or damaged. This causes pain and limits jaw movement. Subsequently, this also affects chewing, speaking, and sometimes swallowing.

Experts say that the condition may occur more commonly in females than males.

Types of TMJ pain

Problems with the TMJ appear in a variety of ways, so there are many types of TMJ disorders. These include:

  • Degenerative joint disorders: These occur when conditions such as osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis cause chronic TMJ inflammation.
  • Articular disorders: These happen when the surface of the TMJ is unable to slide smoothly.
  • Myofascial pain disorder: This occurs when tension builds up in TMJ muscles, causing pain.
  • Derangement of the condyle-disc complex: This happens when the disc does not rotate as it should or gets trapped outside the joint.

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Symptoms of TMJ disorders

The main symptom of TMJ disorders is pain. There may be aching pain around the face, neck, and scalp.

Other symptoms include:

Experts say that certain activities can trigger these symptoms. These activities may include clenching the jaw and eating tough foods. 

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Causes and risk factors associated with TMJ pain

As of now, doctors do not know for sure what causes TMJ. However, they believe that a number of factors may be involved. These factors fall into four general categories: physical habits, emotional issues, injuries and diseases, and skeletal anatomy. 

  • Physical habits: Incorrect posture, teeth clenching, and teeth grinding may lead to wear and tear of the TMJ.
  • Emotional issues: Stress, anxiety, and depression may lead to teeth clenching and increase the risk of TMJ disorders.
  • Injuries and diseases: Trauma, arthritis, and certain autoimmune conditions may limit jaw movement. 
  • Skeletal anatomy: People have slightly different bone structures, which may mean that some individuals experience TMJ pain while others do not.

Treatment for TMJ pain

More often than not, symptoms of TMJ disorders go away on their own. In fact, 4 in 10 people with TMJ disorders recover without treatment.

However, if symptoms persist, treatment may be necessary. The following sections cover the available treatment options.

Conservative treatment

Conservative treatment is any form of treatment that does not involve a surgical procedure. A common example is self-care therapy.

According to one paper, conservative treatment provides pain relief for 5–9 out of 10 people with TMJ pain. 

Conservative treatment for TMJ disorders includes:

  • applying warm or cold compresses to the TMJ area
  • allowing the jaw to rest
  • getting enough sleep to prevent stress
  • eating soft foods 
  • wearing a bite guard 

It is best practice to seek professional advice before undertaking self-care treatment. Let your doctor point you in the right direction.

General treatment

If self-care treatment is not helping, your doctor may recommend medical treatment. After diagnosis, they may suggest any of the following medications:

Exercises

A range of physical exercises may also help manage the symptoms of TMJ disorders. Your doctor can help you develop a training program. The program may include:

Invasive treatment

If your TMJ disorder persists after self-care and general treatment, your doctor may recommend a more aggressive approach, or an invasive treatment.

One such strategy is a Botox injection. This involves injecting a Botox medication into the muscles surrounding the TMJ. Botox injections may help reduce tension in the muscles and relieve pain.

Surgery 

In rare cases, TMJ may be severe enough to require surgical treatment.

In such cases, a surgeon may perform jaw replacement surgery. As the name suggests, this procedure involves replacing your jaw with a prosthetic one. This will stop the pain and restore range of motion in the jaw.

Sometimes, surgery to correct bony anatomic abnormalities can also treat TMJ pain.

How long will TMJ pain last?

A TMJ disorder can last for several months if it is chronic, or the pain may be temporary if it is acute. Depending on the causes and your lifestyle, TMJ symptoms may be mild, moderate, or severe.

If self-care treatment does not bring relief, medical treatment can usually treat the TMJ disorder. If that does not help, surgery may be necessary.

Discuss your symptoms with your doctor to determine the best course of action.

Are TMJ disorders serious?

According to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, many jaw joint problems — including TMJ disorders — are temporary and not too serious. In most cases, you can manage your symptoms by prioritizing rest, exercise, and home remedies. 

However, if your symptoms persist, be sure to seek medical treatment. This is especially important if your symptoms are disrupting your quality of life.

Diagnosing TMJ disorders

Experts say that TMJ disorders can sometimes be difficult to diagnose. This may be due to the complex nature of the TMJ and the many possible causes of TMJ disorders.

Diagnosis often begins with a physical examination and medical history.

Your doctor may check for signs of:

  • muscle tension
  • swelling in the TMJ region
  • limited movement of the jaw
  • teeth clenching and grinding 

Your doctor may also perform some scans to locate any structural problems. These scans may include:

  • X-rays to reveal the state of the teeth
  • CT scans to locate any joint wear and tear and joint fracture
  • MRI scans to detect any signs of disc displacement 

When to contact a doctor

Try to get your doctor’s advice before making any dietary or lifestyle changes in response to TMJ pain. However, it can be helpful for doctors to know if you have tried icing the jaw and eating soft foods and have not seen an improvement.

You should contact your doctor if your symptoms worsen. Prompt and effective treatment is critical in such instances.

Summary

The TMJ is the joint that links your lower jaw to your skull. It allows you to open and close your mouth so that you can eat and speak.

However, the TMJ may become inflamed or irritated, signaling the presence of a TMJ disorder. Symptoms of TMJ disorders include facial pain, headaches, ear pain, and tinnitus

Doctors suspect that the causes of TMJ disorders include skeletal differences, teeth clenching, and teeth grinding. Other risk factors may include certain autoimmune conditions and jaw injuries.

In most cases, self-care treatment — such as stretching and de-stressing — can correct TMJ disorders. In rare cases, surgery may be necessary. Talk with your doctor for further guidance on diagnosis and treatment.

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Medical Reviewer: Nicole Leigh Aaronson, MD, MBA, CPE, FACS, FAAP
Last Review Date: 2022 Mar 11
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