Understanding the terms TMJ and TMD

The term TMJ is sometimes used incorrectly to refer to disorders of the temporomandibular joints. In fact, TMJ refers only to the temporomandibular (jaw) joints. The term TMD describes disorders of the jaw joints and the muscles that control the joints.

What happens within a TMD?

Within a temporomandibular disorder, one or both of the temporomandibular joints may be affected, as the condition causes problems using the jaw and/or pain in the area of the joint and its associated muscles. These disorders can affect a sufferer’s ability to chew, swallow, speak, make facial expressions, and sometimes even to breathe.

normal-condyle-2displaced-condyle-2TMDs often cause pain that may present itself as a migraine or sinus headache, an earache, and/or stiffness of the neck or shoulders. In reality, this pain involves the muscles of the head, face, and neck, as well as the jaw joints. These joints, located on either side of the head in front of the ears, connect the jaw to the skull. Displacement of these joints may cause mild discomfort to severe pain. Fortunately, we can treat these conditions and their associated pain and discomfort!

What are the symptoms of a TMD?

The potential symptoms of TMDs may include any or all of the following:

  • Headaches
  • Back pain
  • Pain behind the eyes
  • Facial or throat pain
  • Dizziness
  • Earaches, congestion, or ringing ears
  • Clenching or grinding teeth
  • Neck pain or stiffness
  • Numbness or tingling of the fingers
  • Clicking, popping, or grating sounds in the jaw joints
  • Tired jaws

When a TMD occurs, the primary problem may reside in the muscles of the face and jaw, in the joints themselves, or a combination of these. Because the symptoms are similar to those associated with other conditions, sufferers frequently seek pain relief from various medical specialists, and may not seek a dentist trained specifically in treating TMDs.

How can I tell if my TMJ is displaced?

The best way to observe the action of the jaw joint is by placing your fingers on your jaw joints in front of your ears on the sides of your face. Carefully open and close your mouth, and you will be able to feel the movement. It should feel smooth, with no clicking or popping when opening, closing, or moving the jaw from side to side. If you suspect displacement, please call our office for an appointment.

Do TMDs affect children?

Although TMDs are commonly recognized as disorders that affect adults, they sometimes occur in children as young as 3 or 4. Children may experience symptoms milder than those of adults. However, young children affected with TMDs may have always experienced jaw pain, headaches, or difficulty in opening their jaws, chewing, swallowing, or speaking normally. They may know no difference, and may believe that pain and/or difficulties with function are what everyone experiences. If their conditions are not diagnosed and left untreated, these symptoms will worsen as they age. However, because affected children are still in their developmental stage, the problem can be corrected. The earlier affected children receive diagnosis and treatment, the better the results!

What are the treatment options for TMDs?

Once we make a diagnosis, our treatment goal is always to avoid surgery and instead provide non-invasive, therapeutic rehabilitation. This is true for children and adults. Treatment options depend on an individual patient’s condition, needs, and desired results. These options most commonly include non-invasive pain relief measures; and our prescribing customized, positioned orthotic appliances (not splints) to be worn for in the mouth during the day and/or the night for a short term (such as a few months). Some treatment plans involve physical medicine treatments to enhance the healing process and provide pain relief during rehabilitation.

What else should I know about TMDs?

Since TMDs are frequently chronic and degenerative disorders, the pain and dysfunction associated with these conditions usually worsens over time. The severity of symptoms commonly increases, and any necessary treatment will become more complex. For this reason, we believe that all patients who experience head, neck, or facial pain (alone or in combination) should seek a comprehensive TMJ evaluation. Please give us a call and we will be glad to schedule an appointment for you!

For related information, please have a look at our article on teeth grinding.