Chronic jaw pain can make simple tasks like eating, speaking, or sleeping very uncomfortable and frustrating. While finding the right treatment approach can sometimes be difficult and require additional tests, there are conservative self-care strategies that can help you in managing your jaw pain.
What is TMJ?
The temporomandibular joint (TMJ) is the physical joint that connects the lower jaw to the skull. You have two TMJs – one on each side. The initials "TMJ" refer to the joint itself, not to a diagnosis or problem.
Disorders of the TMJ
Problems can develop in the TMJs and muscles that move the jaw. Any problem that prevents the complex system of muscles, nerves, bones, ligaments, and joints from working together in harmony may result in what is known as Temporomandibular disorder (TMD).
What Causes TMD?
Temporomandibular disorders are often associated with a number of factors. These include stress, habits, abnormal anatomy, genetics, muscular conditions, facial pain, trauma, occlusal (bite) misalignment, and medical problems associated with arthritis or viral disease. Diagnosis of TMD is typically based on history and physical exam. Imaging (x-rays, MRI, CBCT) may be beneficial when abnormalities are suspected.
Symptoms of TMJ Disorder
Temporomandibular disorders (TMD) often present with pain in the jaw, face, and neck, and/or with dysfunction of the jaw joint. Common symptoms include:
Neck or shoulder pain
Difficulty opening your mouth wide
Jaws that "lock" open or closed
Clicking, popping, or grating noises in the jaw joint
Tinnitus (ringing in the ears)
Changes in your bite
Swelling of the face
How are TMJ Disorders Treated?
If you’ve been diagnosed with TMJ dysfunction, your healthcare provider may recommend conservative treatment options first. Most patients improve with a combination of therapies, including education, self-care, behavior therapy, pharmacotherapy, physical therapy, and occlusal (dental) devices. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and muscle relaxants may be recommended initially, and benzodiazepines or antidepressants may be added for chronic cases.
If conservative treatments are unsuccessful or not indicated, your doctor may suggest an alternative treatment and/or referral to a pain specialist or oral and maxillofacial surgeon.
TMD Self-Care Strategies
Many of these conservative strategies can work in combination to provide relief. Attempts to relax the jaw muscles, and avoidance of activities that would overwork the area can be helpful to reduce pain and prevent additional strain to the area.
Eat a pain-free diet.
Eat soft food
Avoid chewing gum
Avoid hard foods (bread, bagels, ice, nuts)
Avoid chewy foods (steak, candy)
Cut food into small bites or blend
Stay hydrated and eliminate or reduce alcohol intake.
Apply moist heat or cold packs for 15-20 minutes two to four times daily.
Massage painful area for 10-15 minutes nightly.
Avoid caffeine (coffee, tea, soda, chocolate).
Avoid oral habits that put strain on jaw muscles and the TMJ (clenching, grinding, biting cheeks/lips, chewing on pens or fingernails).
Use anti-inflammatory and pain-reducing medication in the short-term to reduce joint and muscle pain, per your doctor's recommendations.
Aoid stomach sleeping, which can put strain on the jaw and neck muscles.
Reduce / eliminate alcohol intake.
Ensure you are getting appropriate amounts of calcium and magnesium in your diet.
Jaw rest position and proper tongue placement -- teeth should not touch each other except for during swallowing. Attempt to maintain your jaw in a relaxed position. Placing your tongue lightly on top of your mouth where you softly say "n" is a comfortable position. Keep your teeth slightly apart as often as you can to relieve pressure on the jaw. To control clenching or grinding during the day, place your tongue on the palate behind your upper front teeth.
Avoid extreme jaw movement.
Avoid resting your chin/jaw on your hand or holding the telephone between your shoulder and ear.
Practice good posture to reduce neck and facial pain.
Like any joint in our bodies (hip, shoulder, wrist), the muscles associated with our TMJ can be strained or injured. The injury can be the result of a specific trauma, or can result from prolonged oral habits (clenching, grinding). Once a joint or muscle is strained, it can be easily re-injured – like a sprained ankle which is subsequently more prone to injury. Because we use the jaw for so many activities (talking, eating, yawning, and laughing), the joint and the muscles are constantly moving. Therefore, total relaxation of the jaw joint and surrounding muscles is difficult. However, allowing the jaw muscles and joints to be in a relaxed position is manageable with practice. Regular attempts to relax the jaw muscles, and avoidance of activities that would overwork the area, will be helpful to reduce the pain and prevent additional strain to the area.
If self-care strategies do not alleviate your symptoms, your orthodontist may recommend a night guard, splint, corrective orthodontic treatment, or referral to an oral surgeon or pain specialist for further evaluation and treatment.
Left untreated, TMJ disorder can lead to chronic pain and inflammation. It can also cause bite issues, tooth wear and even lead to insomnia, depression and anxiety. Prompt treatment can help you manage the condition and improve your overall quality of life. If you are experiencing TMD symptoms, consider seeking the opinion of a dentist, orthodontist, or physician.