Temporomandibular joint and muscle disorders, commonly called "TMJ", are a group of conditions that cause pain and lack of function in the jaw joint and the muscles that control jaw movement. Most often these conditions involve pain and spasms in the muscles rather than actual breakdown of the joint itself. These spasms can lead to jaw stiffness, limited opening of the mouth, a change in your bite, and even ear pain and headaches in the temple area of the face.
For most people, TMJ disorders with pain in the jaw joint or muscles does not indicate a serious problem.Generally, discomfort from TMJ disorders is occasional and temporary, often occuring in cycles. Often the pain eventually goes away with little or no treatment. Some people, however, develop significant, long-term or chronic symptoms.
There are no definitive answers as to what causes these conditions. Trauma to the jaw or joint plays a role in some TMJ disorders. But for most, symptoms seem to start without an obvious reason. Because the exact causes and symptoms are not clear, identifying TMJ disorders can be confusing. Facial pain can be a symptom of many other conditions, such as sinus or ear infections, various types of headaches, and neuralgias (nerve-related facial pain). A consultation with your physician may be needed to help rule these out.
There is no scientific proof that clicking or popping sounds in the joint lead to serious problems. In fact,clicking is quite common. Jaw noises alone, without pain or limited jaw movement, do not indicate a TMJ disorder and do not warrant treatment.
The roles of stress and teeth grinding as major causes of TMJ disorders are also unclear. Many people with these disorders do not grind their teeth, and many long term grinders do not have painful joint symptoms. Researchers also found that stress is more likely the result of dealing with chronic jaw pain than the cause of the TMJ condition.
Because no consistently effective treatment has been determined, experts strongly recommend using the most conservative, reversible treatments possible. These may include anti-inflammatory medications (such as Ibuprofen) and muscle relaxants for a short period of time. Self-care practices are very important to help relieve the discomfort. These include such things as eating soft foods, applying ice packs, gentle jaw stretching exercises, and stress relief/relaxation techniques. In some cases, your dentist may recommend a night guard or bite plate, which is a plastic mouthpiece that fits over the upper or lower teeth.