What’s a TMJ? It’s an acronym for the Temporomandibular Joint, which is commonly called the jaw joint, and if you’re like most people, you have two of them; one on each side of your face. You can feel it working by putting your finger on top of it while you open and close your mouth. Having trouble finding it? Try touching your cheek right in front of the opening to your ear. Be careful; it can be tender for some.
Pain of the TMJ is very common, affecting between 5-12 percent of the population, according to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofascial Research. TMJ dysfunction ( TMJD) is actually more common among young people but does affect a wide variety of ages and can cause, contribute or aggravate other conditions, such as headaches, vertigo/dizziness, facial pain, neck pain, poor balance, depression, anxiety and sleep apnea.
What causes TMJ dysfunction? Our jaw and mouth are connected by nerves to deep parts of our central nervous system, which can make management of the diagnosis very challenging, even for the best doctors and the best patients.
The cause of TMJ dysfunction is often either mechanical, mental, or both, to put it simply. That means that either the mechanics of how the jaw works is not quite right (tight muscles, occlusion/bite alignment, physical trauma history, behavioral factors, joint stiffness/laxity, hormonal factors), or one’s psychological state (social, emotional, or cognitive factors) is causing excessive pressure on the joint from muscle tension.
In some cases, hormonal factors can play a role, as there are estrogen hormone receptors in the TMJ that can affect how loose or tight the joint is, as well as make the individual more sensitive to pain. In fact, women taking hormone replacement for menopause, or oral contraceptives for birth control, are more likely to be more sensitive to pain than their drugless counterparts.
What is bruxism and why is it important? This will prepare you for the next time you’re stuck with the letter “X” in a friendly pickup game of Scrabble with your too-competitive family at Thanksgiving. Bruxism is an 18-point Scrabble word that means “teeth grinding,” and a large proportion of people who grind their teeth have TMJ pain (more than 80 percent), and nearly 20 percent of the adult population grind their teeth; for children it’s 38 percent.
How do you know if you are grinding your teeth? Here are some pointed questions to help uncover the answer.
Does anyone hear you grinding your teeth at night? Is your jaw ever tired or sore when you wake up? Are your teeth or gums sore in the morning? Do you ever experience temporal (temple) headache when you wake up in the morning? Are you ever aware of clenching your teeth during the day?
If you suspect that grinding your teeth at night is causing you pain in your jaw, here are some tips that may be useful for you. Be sure to check with your dentist and chiropractor to see if there are concerns with your occlusion, joint alignment, muscle tension, or other concerns, and what your options may be.
• Stop clenching your jaw during the day. Check in with yourself every 20 minutes for 6 hours and count how many times you find that you are clenching your teeth together. The jaw should be relaxed with space between your teeth, your lips together, and your tongue on the roof of your mouth lightly. Some research shows that people who stop clenching their jaw during the day, will also stop grinding their teeth at night.
• Reduce your alcohol and caffeine consumption. These tend to stir up the emotional parts of our brain, inducing undue stress that people often translate to clenching their teeth together.
• Get fitted for a custom night guard. Ask your dentist if they would recommend a night guard based on their examination. This can reduce the impact of your nighttime teeth grinding and leave your muscles less sore in the morning.
• Doing some light stretching, massaging of the jaw muscles, range of motion exercises and relaxation techniques before bed can help set the tone for a peaceful night of sleep.
• Stop chewing gum. People who chew gum more than 4 hours per day are at higher risk for developing TMJ dysfunction later in life.