Temporomandibular joint disorder, commonly referred to as TMJ disorder, is a painful condition that involves the joint that connects the lower and upper jaw. While many patients can be successfully diagnosed and treated by their primary care physician, visiting a TMJ specialist may be warranted for moderate to severe cases.
What is TMJ?
TMJ has a number of different causes or things that exacerbate symptoms, including:
- Injury to the jaw
- Bruxism (teeth grinding or clenching)
- Excessive gum chewing
- Even poor posture
Common TMJ disorder symptoms include:
- Pain in the temporomandibular joint (located where the upper and lower jaw connect, just beneath the temple)
- Clicking and popping in the jaw
- Swelling or warmth on the face in the area of the joint
- Stiffness in the jaw, especially upon awakening
- Locking in the temporomandibular joint
These days, temporomandibular joint disorder is also known as TMD.
What is a TMJ specialist?
Just as you would visit a heart specialist for issues with your cardiovascular system, a TMJ specialist visit may be in order if you are experiencing the symptoms of TMJ/TMD.
The American Dental Association (ADA) recognizes the following nine dental specialties:
- Oral and Maxillofacial Pathology
- Oral and Maxillofacial Radiology
- Orthodontics and Dentofacial Orthopedics
- Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery
- Dental Public Health
- Pediatric Dentistry
Without a specifically recognized designation, it can be difficult for patients to locate a TMJ specialist who has the focus and training to effectively treat their condition.
How to find a TMJ specialist
The National Institute of Health (NIH) recommends that in order to find a TMJ specialist who is qualified, a patient should focus on dental professionals who have studied musculoskeletal disorders. A pain clinic may be able to refer you to a TMJ specialist who has experience in painful conditions of the head, neck, and jaw. These neuromuscular dentists understand the complex relationship between the skeletal and muscular systems. They can help patients understand the roots of their TMJ.
Physical therapists who specialize in TMJ are also potential care providers. A physical therapist can help TMJ sufferers to gently stretch and strengthen all areas of the jaw. This can both relieve TMJ symptoms and prevent further damage to the joint.
Patients with TMJ may also benefit from counseling. Stress and anxiety may be related to TMJ, and a counselor can help patients make the connection between what’s happening in their mind with the consequences in their body.
TMJ specialists will work closely with a primary care physician to identify the signs and symptoms of TMJ/TMD. They’ll also design a comprehensive treatment plan that addresses underlying causes or comorbid health issues that may be exacerbating the condition.
What does a TMJ specialist do?
Regardless of how a patient finds their TMJ dentist or specialist, most TMJ treatment begins with conservative options aimed at helping to manage pain and alleviate symptoms. A self-care regimen of soft foods, over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), and warm compresses are generally the first step to relieving pain and swelling.
A TMJ specialist has other weapons in their arsenal for the fight against TMJ. Because TMJ can be a chronic illness characterized by acute, painful flare-ups, a TMJ specialist will work closely with a patient’s primary care physician to identify triggers. In general, the progression of treatment options a TMJ specialist will employ will go from least invasive to more complicated.
The first step to designing a treatment plan includes a thorough examination to determine if there has been an injury to the jaw. After implementing self-care treatments for an acute phase of TMJ, a TMJ specialist might try some (or all) of the following options.
Also used to treat bruxism that can lead to TMJ, mouth guards of varying degrees of softness may also help properly align the jaw to prevent more damage from this condition.
As with other joints in the body, a severely inflamed temporomandibular joint may benefit from a cortisone shot to decrease swelling and pain. Some patients also find relief from injections of botulinum toxin type A (Botox).
This TMJ treatment uses small needles inserted into the joint to drain any accumulated fluid that may be causing pain or decreased mobility. Surgical options like this and the ones that follow are only appropriate for the most severe cases when other treatments have failed.
Arthroscopic surgery uses small, thin tubes to perform minimally-invasive treatment of the joint. This treatment varies, depending on what the surgeon finds when they look inside.
A modified condylotomy is surgery that is performed on the lower jaw bone (the mandible), not the actual temporomandibular joint. This may occur in cases of damage to the mandible or some other condition that cannot be otherwise addressed without surgery.
Open joint surgery
The complications for performing surgery on the temporomandibular joint are more risky than many other TMJ treatment options, but in some severe cases your TMJ specialist will consider it. Most TMJ specialists will exhaust all other options first before discussing surgery as an option.
TMJ is highly treatable. Your TMJ specialist, primary care physicians, and other specialists (e.g., physical therapists) can manage it with a combination of treatments.
How can I find a TMJ specialist near me?
If TMJ specialists aren’t monitored or certified by the ADA, how can you find a qualified dental professional near you? The best place to start is the American Dental Association’s Find-A-Dentist tool. This easy search tool helps you search by area and specialty.
Other ways to look for a TMJ specialist include asking friends and family for referrals. Especially talk to those friends and family who have experienced the pain of TMJ disorder.
If dental care expenses are out of reach, dental schools and local health departments are good options for dental care, offering affordable treatments of all kinds.
If you’re in Arizona, AZ Dentist is your Phoenix area TMJ dentist. AZ Dentist specializes in dental care that is personalized. We work with you to design the best treatment plan for your pain and other symptoms. Get in touch today to start healing with your local TMJ specialist!