Temporomandibular Joint Dysfunction, or TMJ, is a painful dental and medical disorder of the hinge-like joint connecting jawbone and skull. Common in women between 20 and 40, TMJ afflicts people who clench or grind their teeth, have arthritis in that joint, or have had a jaw injury. Many times, dentists and oral surgeons puzzle over the causes of TMJ. However, dentists, oral surgeons and physicians who specialize in the ear, nose and throat are the best professionals to deal with this dental/medical problem.

Symptoms that dentists know about

A person with TMJ visits a dental professional or oral surgeon with many symptoms. The jaw may audibly click or grind and/or be tender to the touch. The individual’s entire face may ache. Dentists and oral surgeons hear about problems with chewing, or in serious cases, TMJ may cause the jaw to lock up in a partially or completely open or closed position.

When an individual presents with TMJ symptoms, his dentist or oral surgeon will rule out other dental sources of jaw pain such as dental decay, periodontal (gum) disease, or arthritis. Also, the oral surgeon will press on the jaw joint and check its range of motion (open, closing, sliding back/forth and side to side). A series of dental X-rays check the teeth for dental disease and position, and some dentists order an MRI to check the cartilage in the joint.

Treatment options: not necessarily oral surgery

When the oral surgeon or dentist diagnoses Temporomandibular Joint Dysfunction, the treatment (drugs, physical therapy, oral surgery, etc.) will depend on the severity of the condition and the patient’s dental and overall health. No, oral surgery is not the first option, but oral surgery may be discussed.

Dentists or an oral surgeon may prescribe dental appliances called bite splints as one dental modality relieves pressure on the joint. This is not as invasive as some dental procedures or oral surgery is. Physical therapy, in the form of heat and cold application and jaw exercises, can help. BOTOX injections, familiar as a cosmetic treatment for facial wrinkles, can relax jaw muscles. Some oral surgeons perform arthrocentesis, a type of oral surgery which withdraws fluid from inside the joint capsule and relieves pressure.

Regarding medications, oral surgeons and dentists recommend simple over the counter pain relievers, prescription muscle relaxants, sedatives and even some antidepressants. Again, much depends on the TMJ itself and on what the oral surgeon or dentist prefers.

Oral surgeons and dentists are hopeful in treating TMJ, and while this dental/medical problem is often not eliminated, diagnosis and treatment appear to give patients relief.