How Serious Is Temporomandibular Joint Disorder?
Temporomandibular Joint Disorder (TMJ) refers to a group of medical conditions affecting the lower jaw, its joints, and the muscles that surround it. The symptoms may run from mild to severe, but new studies have linked TMJ to additional symptoms that had been unexplainable in many patients until recently.
Overview of Temporomandibular Joint Disorder
According to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR), a division of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the number of people suffering from TMJ in the United States is approximately 10 million. However, the NIDCR admits that, because the condition is often misdiagnosed, the exact number is unknown.
The temporomandibular joint connects the lower jaw to the skull’s temporal bones, and the muscles surrounding this joint are used to open and close the jaw and control its position from side to side. The complex movements for which the temporomandibular joint is responsible make TMJ a difficult condition to study.
Unlike most other medical conditions, TMJ is not a single disorder but a group of similar disorders that affect the same joint. Most of the specific conditions that are considered TMJ fall into one of the following three categories, but it is possible for patients to experience more than one type simultaneously:
- Arthritic TMJ – When the inflammation associated with arthritis affects the lower jaw joints, it can cause pain and discomfort in the joint and the surrounding muscles
- Myofascial pain dysfunction – This category includes the most commonly experienced TMJ disorders and is characterized by pain and discomfort in the jaw muscles, neck and head.
- Internal TMJ derangement – Internal derangement is the most serious category of TMJ disorders. Trauma or a displaced jaw, among other causes, can precipitate it.
Symptoms of TMJ
TMJ may cause one or more symptoms, but the most common are discomfort and pain in the lower jaw, which may range from mildly annoying to severely distressing. Other common symptoms are as follows:
- Neck pain
- Stiff lower jaw
- Difficulty moving the jaw or locked jaw
- Grating, clicking or popping sounds when opening or closing the jaw
- Misalignment of the upper and lower jaws
- Ringing in the ears
Noninvasive TMJ Treatment
Many cases of TMJ can be treated through conservative, noninvasive methods, many of which can be performed by patients at home with a doctor’s recommendation. These self-care methods include the following:
- Applying cold packs to the jaw
- Restricting diet to soft foods
- Limiting jaw movement
- Engaging in relaxing, stress-reducing activities
- Performing jaw-stretching exercises
Other noninvasive treatments are available but usually require a prescription or the help of an oral surgeon. These treatments include prescription anti-inflammatory and pain medications and stabilization splints.
Invasive TMJ Treatment
According to the American Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons (AAOMS), when noninvasive treatments are unsuccessful, surgery may be required to treat TMJ. Many procedures have been developed and tested that help relieve serious symptoms in many patients, and they can help to repair damaged tissues. In severe cases, artificial joint implants may be used.
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