Head, tooth, and jaw aches: TMJ: A Silent Stressor

Have you ever woken up with an aching jaw? Do you suffer from sensitive teeth? How about tension headaches that stretch across your forehead like a rubberband? These symptoms – a constant aching pain, lockjaw, or tension – can elevate daily stress levels and decrease overall quality of life. Temporomandibular Joint Dysfunction, or TMJ, could be the sneaky culprit of these, and other, symptoms.

What Is TMJ?skeleton head with jaw open and a red joint

TMJ is basically a broad term for conditions that affect the temporomandibular joint, jaw muscles, and facial nerves. The temporomandibular joint is a hinge-and-slide joint that attaches your jaw to your skull on either side. You can feel the joint – it’s a ball between your ears and your cheekbones. When it is working correctly, the bones around the joint are covered with cartilage and protected by a shock-absorbing disk, allowing smooth movement when opening and closing your mouth. 

When it’s dysfunctional, the hinge catches irregularly because the joint’s cartilage is damaged, the joint is damaged by an injury or impact, or the disk has eroded or is misaligned. This dysfunction can cause facial tension and pain, headaches, earaches, swelling, and difficulty chewing. In the worst cases, TMJ can cause the joint to lock, making it difficult to open or close your mouth. The exact cause of this joint’s dysfunction is different for every person, but 5-12% of people experience pain in this area, so if you are suffering from these stressful symptoms, you aren’t alone! 

Key Risk Factors For TMJ

While every TMJ case is different, there are some common risk factors that may increase the risk of developing or worsening temporomandibular joint dysfunction, including: 

  • Jaw injury
  • Chronic teeth grinding
  • Arthritis
  • Connective tissue diseases

    man standing in the mirror holding his cheeks with both hands
    Tenderness or pain in the jaw area is one of the symptoms of TMJ.

TMJ is painful, and often goes undiagnosed, despite the fact that the majority of cases can be managed with lifestyle changes or physical therapy. It’s important to see a doctor if you have two or more of the following symptoms:

  • Tenderness or pain in the jaw area
  • Sensitive, aching teeth
  • Aching pain in or around the ears
  • Swelling, pain, or pressure around one or both of the temporomandibular joints
  • Difficulty or pain while chewing
  • Aching facial pain
  • Clicking sound or grinding sensation when chewing or opening the mouth
  • Sensation of locking of the jaw when opening or closing. 

What Happens Next?

If you’ve decided that you’ve had enough of these stressful symptoms and are looking for relief,  the first step is finding a craniofacial specialist. These doctors know the inner workings of the bones and joints of the face and can perform a thorough exam and assessment. They will measure the range of motion and strength of your jaw, take x-rays and bite compressions, and may run other tests to find out what exactly is going on. If your doctor determines that your pain is caused by temporomandibular joint dysfunction, they may prescribe a set of targeted jaw exercises to help strengthen and relax those tight joints and muscles, or they may refer you to a physical therapist. Additionally, they will likely recommend lifestyle changes to support healthy temporomandibular function. Common lifestyle changes to reduce symptoms of TMJ include:

  • Improve posture. Because the neck and jaw are so closely related, the slouched posture so many of us have can affect the position of your jaw joints. This posture is often related to working at a desk, using cellular devices, and not getting enough physical exercise. One easy way to correct poor posture is to place a rolled up towel in the curve of your back while sitting at a desk. When properly placed, this should force you to sit up tall and correct your neck and shoulder positioning. This is such a common issue that there are also many tools available to support proper posture, including over-the-counter back braces and electronic devices that remind you to adjust your position.
  • Improve sleep habits. TMJ discomfort can cause poor sleep quality, but poor sleep quality exacerbates TMJ discomfort! Break this cycle by improving your end-of-day habits, so you can be ready for a more relaxed night’s sleep. Try reducing the amount of screen time you get before bed, dimming the lights 30 minutes before you want to fall asleep, or adopting a pre-bedtime mindfulness routine to get a better night’s sleep.
  • Watch what you eat. Certain foods can irritate TMJ symptoms. Avoid things like steak, chewy vegetables, and hearty breads, as they can cause jaw fatigue or unnecessary compression. Eating softer foods and taking smaller bites when TMJ symptoms are acting up can help alleviate pain and tension.persons hands with their thumb popping out a white pill from a pill pack.
  • Decrease stress levels. Many folks have nervous habits, like chewing on gum, biting their nails, or grinding their teeth. All of these habits can lead to overusing the TMJ muscles and can cause damage to the joint or tissues that support healthy jaw function. Try to break these habits by supplementing hard candies for gum and using relaxing breathing techniques to eliminate nail biting or jaw grinding. To supplement physical therapy exercises and these lifestyle changes, there are some helpful at-home remedies you can rely on to relieve pain. You can try:
  • Ice and heat therapy: Apply hot or cold packs to sensitive jaw areas for 5-15 minutes at a time. 
  • Anti-inflammatory medication: While you don’t want to use these every day, over the counter pain management medication can be helpful for TMJ symptoms. You’ll want an NSAID (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug) like Motrin or Advil, as they have the anti-inflammatory properties that will decrease swelling and pain related to swelling.
  • Stress management techniques: Stress plays a major role in jaw pain for many people, and stress relieving techniques can be effective for reducing pain. You can try breathing exercises or relaxation techniques, massaging the area with essential oils, or taking a brief break for meditation.

TMJ symptoms can be invasive and can impact every part of your life, but these stressful symptoms don’t have to last forever. You can adopt healthy lifestyle changes that will help you to see a decrease in symptoms before you even visit your doctor. Remember, though, as with any concerning symptoms, you should contact your doctor right away. TMJ is a manageable condition, and you have nothing to lose by starting on the path to recovery.