You’ve likely heard of “TMJ” or “TMD” but what exactly is it? More importantly, how do you know if you have it?
What TMJ Is
There’s a joint in your head called the temporomandibular joint, or TMJ for short. This is the jaw joint, and it connects the lower jaw to the skull. It’s responsible for opening and closing the mouth. Dysfunction of this joint is called temporomandibular disorder, or TMD. Many people say TMJ when they mean TMD, as in “I’ve got TMJ,” even though that’s technically incorrect.
The TMJ is a very complicated joint, and all its components must be in good condition and function well together for the joint to work as designed. Dysfunction of the TMJ can originate from problems with the ligaments, bones, and disc of the jaw joint itself, or from pain outside the jaw. A single blow to the jaw, repeated microtrauma from teeth grinding or clenching, or pain in another part of the body entirely can all cause pain in the TMJ.
Common Symptoms of TMJ Dysfunction
Disorders of the temporomandibular joint can cause a wide variety of symptoms. Let’s start with the most common ones:
- Noises (clicking) upon opening and closing the mouth
- Inability to open the mouth
- Jaw pain
- Facial pain
- Neck pain
- Back pain
- Shoulder pain
It’s easy to see how problems with the jaw joint could lead to jaw pain and problems, but how does it lead to pain in the neck, back, and shoulders?
When the jaw joint is injured, the surrounding muscles work hard to keep it from being injured further. The jaw muscles become overworked, eventually leading to pain in the muscles themselves. At the same time, compression inside the joint affects the nearby nerves, which become overstimulated, and inflammation and swelling can lead to pain and pressure, too.
Less Common Symptoms of TMJ Dysfunction
Other, less common symptoms of TMJ dysfunction include:
- Difficulty swallowing
- Chronic vomiting
- Vision problems
- Movement disorders (tics and twitches)
- Numbness in the extremities
- Burning tongue sensation
Let’s explore where these unusual symptoms come from.
Muscles are again the source of some of these symptoms. When the jaw is in a strange position, muscles of the face, neck, throat, and chin work hard to balance it, causing them to cramp up and cause muscle pain and other symptoms, such as difficulty swallowing.
Nerves are the source for other symptoms. A jaw joint that’s out of alignment can lead to a forward head posture that compresses nerves in the neck. Some of these nerves, in an area called the subnucleus caudalis, can cause neurological symptoms like tics, twitches, numbness, and burning sensations in the tongue when affected.
Finally, sheer physical force from the jaw on the cranium can cause problems, too; in the process, the eyeball can be squeezed, leading to vision problems.
What Can Be Done About TMJ Disorders?
As you can see, there are many possible causes for the pain associated with TMD, and the associated symptoms are varied. In fact, many symptoms, like headache and shoulder pain, are so generic, many people don’t even realize that dysfunction with the TMJ was the cause of their symptoms until it was treated.
If you suspect you have problems with your jaw joint, or you feel pain in that area, go see a dentist or orthodontist who specializes in the temporomandibular joint and TMJ disorders. Many cases of TMD are effectively treated with oral devices, while others require other medical interventions. Once the underlying cause is treated, the symptoms go away.