Temporomandibular (TM) Disorders

Temporomandibular (TM) disorders is the name given to several problems with jaw movement and pain in and around the jaw joints. You may also hear TM disorders called TMJ, TMD, or TM problems.

The jaw joints, or temporomandibular (TM) joints, connect the lower jawbone (mandible) to the skull. These flexible joints are used more than any other joint in the body. They allow the jaw to open and close for talking, chewing, swallowing, yawning, and other movements.

Many people have problems with jaw movement and pain in and around the jaw joints at some time during their lives. These joint and muscle problems are complex. So finding the right diagnosis and treatment of TM disorders may take some time.

TM disorders can affect the jaw and jaw joint as well as muscles in the face, shoulder, head, and neck. Common symptoms include:

  • Joint pain
  • Muscle pain
  • Headaches
  • Joint sounds
  • Trouble with fully opening the mouth
  • Jaw locking

In most cases, symptoms of TM disorders are mild. They tend to come and go without getting worse and usually go away without a doctor’s care.

Some people who have TM disorders develop long-lasting (chronic) symptoms. Chronic pain or difficulty moving the jaw may affect talking, eating, and swallowing. This may affect a person’s overall sense of well-being.

The most common cause of TM disorder symptoms is muscle tension, often triggered by stress. When you are under stress, you may be in the habit of clenching or grinding your teeth. These habits can tire the jaw muscles and lead to a cycle of muscle spasm, tissue damage, pain, and sore muscles.

TM disorders can start when there is a problem with the joint itself, such as:

  • An injury to the joint or the tissues around it.
  • Problems with how the joint is shaped.
  • Joint diseases, such as osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis.
  • The articular disc that cushions the joint shifts out of place.

TM disorder symptoms usually go away without treatment. Simple home treatment can often relieve mild jaw pain. There are things you can do at first to reduce pain.

  • Rest your jaw joint.
  • Use medicines for a short time, to reduce swelling or relax muscles.
  • Put either an ice pack or a warm, moist cloth on your jaw for 15 minutes several times a day if it makes your jaw feel better. Or you can switch back and forth between moist heat and cold. Gently open and close your mouth while you use the ice pack or heat. But don’t use heat if your jaw is swollen. Use only ice until the swelling is gone.
  • Eat soft foods.
  • Avoid chewy foods and chewing gum.

Splints, also called bite plates, are a common dental treatment for TM disorders. Splints are usually clear pieces of plastic that fit between the upper and lower teeth. They help reduce grinding and clenching. Splints are used for a short time so that they do not cause permanent changes in the teeth or jaw.

Getting physiotherapy and learning ways to reduce stress may also help to reduce pain and TM joint problems. If your pain is chronic or severe or is caused by problems with how the joint is shaped, your doctor may recommend other treatments such as surgery or reshaping or shaving down the teeth.