The joint that allows the simple movement of opening and shutting your jaw is the Temporo-Mandibular Joint (TMJ). It connects the bone that forms the side of the skull (temporal bone) and the lower jaw (mandible bone). There is a small disc of cartilage that separates the bones so that the mandible slides easily when you talk, chew, swallow or even kiss. So, if this triangular structure in front of your ear is damaged, it can cause quite a bit of discomfort.
Where is the TMJ Located?
To find your TMJ, place your finger on the triangular structure in front of your ear. Then press firmly while you open your jaw and close it. You will feel the motion in your fingers, as well as your ear canal.
How does the TMJ work?
When chewing, you put force on the food between your teeth and on the joint. The jaw is the lever and the TMJ is the fulcrum. More force goes to the joint surface than to what is between your teeth because the cartilage provides a smooth surface. This allows the joint to slide freely with very little friction.
The forces of chewing are distributed over a wide area in the joint and reduce the risk of injury. There are also several muscles that contribute to opening and closing the jaw that helps the TMJ function.
What Causes TMJ Pain?
When there is pain from the TMJ, it is usually the result of a displaced cartilage disc that causes pressure and stretches the sensory nerves surrounding it. If you experience a popping or clicking, this happens when the disk snaps into place as the jaw moves. Sometimes the chewing muscles may have spasms or may not function as efficiently as they should. This can also cause pain and tenderness.
What are the causes of TMJ Damage?
- Grinding your teeth
- Chewing gum
- Injury to the jaw
- Psychological factors
- Misaligned Jaw
Common TMJ Symptoms
- Pain in the ear
- Sore jaw muscles
- Pain in the cheek or temple
- Clicking or popping of the jaw
- Lock Jaw
- Difficulty opening mouth
TMJ Symptoms may include a sharp searing pain that occurs or dull and constant pain. You may experience pain each time you swallow, yawn, talk, or chew. It may hurt in the teeth, in the joint that is immediately in front of the ear, or the pain may radiate elsewhere. TMJ may also cause spasms in adjacent muscles attached to the bones of the face, jaw, or skull.
Frequently, people believe that their TMJ issue is an ear problem. Many patients come to the ear specialist claiming their pain is from an ear infection. But when the earache is not associated with hearing loss and the eardrum is normal, it is possible that the pain comes from TMJ.
There are a few other symptoms besides pain that TMJ can cause. It can make popping, clicking, or grinding sounds when the jaws are opened wide. Or the jaw locks wide open (dislocated). At the other extreme, TMJ can prevent the jaws from opening fully. Some people get ringing in their ears from TMJ.
How is TMJ Treated?
Otolaryngologists are appropriately qualified to diagnose TMJ problems. Proper diagnosis of TMJ begins with a patient’s detailed history, a physical, including careful assessment of the teeth occlusion, the function of the jaw joints, and muscle function.
Simple TMJ self-remedies:
- Eat soft foods to rest the muscles and joints
- Avoid chewing gum
- Don’t clench or tense the jaw
- Apply moist heat for 30 minutes twice a day.
If the joint was injured, apply ice packs to reduce the swelling. Relaxing and stress reduction, anti-inflammatory medications, or muscle relaxants may also offer relief.
More advanced cases may include the fabrication of an occlusal splint to prevent wear and tear on the joint. This improves the alignment of the upper and lower teeth. Sometimes surgery may be required. After diagnosis, your otolaryngologist may suggest further consultation with your dentist and oral surgeon for effective TMJ management.
If you are experiencing jaw pain, difficulty opening and closing your mouth, a popping or clicking when your jaw opens, frequent headaches, or pain in the ear, call (719) 867-7800 to make an appointment today.