For some, it’s just a collection of letters. For others, TMJ can mean pain and difficulty every day. Temporomandibular jaw pain, commonly referred to as TMJ, is a chronic pain condition that affects approximately ten million people in the U.S.

What is TMJ?

TMJ is a joint disorder that involves the temporomandibular joint. This sliding joint connects the lower jaw with your skull at a point right in front of each ear. The temporomandibular joint allows us to eat, talk, yawn, and otherwise open our mouths.

A diagnosis of TMJ (also known technically as TMD) is made with a combination of tools. Your doctor or dentist will physically examine your jaw for signs of decreased mobility, swelling, and tenderness. They may put you through range of motion exercises and listen to any sounds your jaw makes when you open and close your mouth.

In some cases, dental X-rays are ordered to assess the health of your teeth and to see if there are any underlying issues. An MRI can examine the tissues in the joint to see if there are any issues with the disc of the joint. Finally, your dentist may refer you to a TMJ specialist or oral surgeon for a more complete diagnosis.

What causes TMJ?

TMJ has many different causes. The joint can be damaged by:

  • Injury or trauma
  • Deterioration due to arthritis
  • Erosion in the joint or the disc that cushions it

There are certain risk factors that can increase your risk of developing TMJ and TMJ pain, including the following.

Bruxism

Grinding your teeth and clenching your jaw fall into the category of bruxism, a disorder that puts incredible stress on the jaw and the temporomandibular joint over time.

People with bruxism are not guaranteed to develop TMJ, but it can contribute to their diagnosis.

Arthritis and other inflammatory conditions

Those who suffer from arthritis may also develop TMJ.

Osteoarthritis is a wear-and-tear form of arthritis that occurs over time. A lifetime of eating and talking can take its toll on the temporomandibular joint, grinding away the connective tissue until it becomes inflamed.

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disorder that can cause TMJ at any age.

There is also some evidence that TMJ is related to other inflammatory conditions, like fibromyalgia.

Previous injury or trauma

A blow to the jaw or trauma to the face can knock the temporomandibular joint out of alignment. Once this happens and the sliding nature of the joint is impacted, TMJ can develop.

There are a number of factors that contribute to the development of TMJ. Not every case has an easily pinpointed cause.

How long does TMJ last?

TMJ pain and other symptoms can last anywhere from days to weeks in the acute phase. Once treatments are in place, symptoms of a flare up may diminish or disappear altogether.

If the underlying cause of the TMJ is not addressed or treated, TMJ can become chronic. Patients may experience periods of flare up and remission for years.

What are major TMJ symptoms?

Major TMJ symptoms may come and go during the day. They can include any or all of the following:

  • TMJ pain in the joint itself
  • Warmth and swelling in the face
  • Headache (even migraine)
  • Tenderness in the jaw
  • Difficulty eating, chewing, or opening the mouth
  • Locked jaw (inability to open the mouth or move the jaw at all)
  • Clicking or ticking sound in the joint when chewing
  • Decreased mobility in the jaw
  • Grating noise (or feeling) in the joint
  • Toothaches
  • Ear pain
  • Tinnitus (ringing in the ears)
  • Hearing problem

Some patients experience these symptoms most intensely in the morning, especially if their TMJ has been caused by bruxism at night. Others might find that after a day of talking and eating hard foods their jaw is aching.

If left untreated, TMJ symptoms can