Although the jawbone and its joints are incredibly strong, certain factors can leave a jaw weak or overworked. In such cases, the temporomandibular joint (TMJ) may suffer from ongoing aches and pains. These problems are collectively referred to as TMD or TMJ disorder, and are assumed to affect over 10 million Americans.
It is unfortunately difficult to discern the absolute causes of TMD, as many factors may play a role in its formation. Additionally, the disorder may not result in symptoms beyond discomfort, leaving doctors to speculate what may be wrong. Nevertheless, some common causes of TMD have been identified over the years, as noted below for the benefit of our Memphis patients.
Jaw Clenching and Grinding
Habitual teeth grinding, called bruxism, is a separate disorder that may also lead to a TMJ disorder in time. Patients who suffer from bruxism tend to grind their teeth in their sleep, leading to the potential for numerous dental problems. In addition to chipped teeth and eroded enamel, the constant pressure exerted by the jaw can leave it sore, with pain continuing into the day. If you find the joints of your jaw tender or aching, particularly in the morning, it may be evidence of bruxism.
Similarly, other habits that cause one to clench the jaw repeatedly can potentially lead to TMJ pain. Repeated chewing on gum or objects, perhaps one’s fingernails, may eventually wear out the jaw and its joints. More commonly, patients who are under a lot of stress may subconsciously tighten their muscles, including a clenched jaw. Environmental sources of stress, such as difficulties at home or work, are often contributing factors to TMD.
Just as arthritis can be responsible for the damage and discomfort of other joints in the body, it can cause problems in the TMJ. Although the symptoms may be similar, there are two distinct forms of arthritis that are particularly linked to TMD:
- Osteoarthritis: This is the most common source of joint pain, affecting more than 25 million Americans. Osteoarthritis does not have any one specific cause, as it may arise from genetics, trauma, disease, or other factors. In all cases, patients experience a loss of joint cartilage and the formation of cysts within the bone, causing a cycle of progressive tissue loss and healing.
- Rheumatoid arthritis (RA): This form of arthritis is a disease of the autoimmune system, wherein the body mistakenly damages its own joints. RA results in an inflammation that can make joints reddened, swollen, and sore for days or months at a time. The severity and location of RA varies among patients, but can potentially affect the TMJ.
Depending on the type of arthritis and its symptoms, a doctor or cosmetic dentist (in the case of TMD) may recommend varying forms of treatment.
As one may expect, traumatic injury to the jaw can lead to immediate or long-term TMD. A blow to the head, even if not directly on the jaw, can damage the TMJ or the disc that rests between the joints. Whiplash also has the potential to indirectly damage one’s jaw. Injuries that result in damage to one’s neck or ear can often be linked to problems in nearby joints and muscles. In fact, due to the upper jaw’s proximity to the ear, pain that is perceived as an earache may in fact be residing in the TMJ.
Displacement of the Articular Disk
Between the TMJ and the cheekbone is the articular disk, connected with muscles and ligaments. This disk may fall out of alignment due to a number of reasons, including damage, stress, and stretched ligaments. In some cases, the disk will eventually fall back into place as the surrounding tissues heal, while other patients may require medication, an oral appliance, or surgery. When TMD is caused by a displaced disk, patients may experience other symptoms in addition to discomfort. Namely, the jaw may unintentionally lock in place or create a clicking sound during movement. If any of these symptoms are present, patients should seek professional help to evaluate the severity of their TMJ and its disk.
Are You Suffering from TMD?
If you are experiencing jaw pain for any length of time, do not hesitate to consult your doctor or dentist. Although a TMJ disorder sometimes resolves on its own, there may be treatment that can address the underlying cause. More importantly, potential risks can be identified and mitigated. Contact our office for more information on our TMD services, or to schedule an appointment with Dr. van Zyl.