Jaw pain can be incredibly disruptive – not to mention extremely uncomfortable – so it’s worth working out what’s causing it.
Do you experience jaw pain and irritating clicking sounds when you chew? You may have TMD (temporomandibular disorder), a condition that affects the movement of the jaw. Research suggests that up to 12% of people live with TMD and, unusually for chronic pain conditions, it’s more prevalent among younger people.
While it’s not always the most serious of issues, TMD is still a chronic condition that can wreak havoc on your life. It’s like tooth grinding… only more annoying.
But there are things you can do to help soothe symptoms – if you know what you’re dealing with. Below, we’ve been looking at symptoms, diagnosis and treatment options.
What is TMD?
“TMD stands for temporomandibular disorders, and refers to around 30 different conditions which can affect the movement of the jaw and chewing muscles,” says Dr Sam Jethwa, vice president at The British Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry and dentist at Bespoke Smile. “It does not tend to be too serious but it can definitely be uncomfortable when suffering from it.”
There are various treatment options available, depending on what’s causing your TMD, but in many cases, Dr Jethwa says, symptoms can improve on their own without intervention.
What are the symptoms of TMD?
Clicking and popping sounds when you chew or stretch your jaw can be a sign of TMD. But Dr Jethwa reassures us that, as with most joints in our bodies, it’s normal for the jaw to click and pop – as long as there’s no pain involved.
Some of the key symptoms of TMD to look out for include:
- Pain when yawning, chewing or talking
- Stiffness in the jaw which will cause restricted movement
- Locking of the jaw
- Pain around the jaw, temple and ear and this pain may spread around the face and neck
- Teeth may not fit together or a change in the way they normally fit
“TMD can present itself in a variety of symptoms, and can even lead to headaches and nausea,” Dr Jethwa adds. Teeth can also become worn down as a result of your bite changing due to imbalanced joints in the jaw. “TMD can cause pain in the teeth; however, pain in the gums will rarely occur.”
What causes TMD?
One of the most common causes of TMD, Dr Jethwa says, is bruxism (teeth grinding and jaw clenching). “People who grind their teeth when they are awake may do so out of stress and anxiety, without even realising they are doing it,” he says.
“In many cases, bruxism occurs during sleep – this is especially common in children and teenagers. As well as affecting the joints of the jaw, bruxism can really damage the teeth by wearing down the enamel, and can cause the teeth to appear flat, chipped and sometimes even loose.”
TMJ can also occur as a result of a face injury, general wear and tear of the joint and arthritis, as well as certain medications.
“Some experts have suggested that genetics could play a role, too,” says Dr Jethwa.
When should you see a dentist if you think you have TMD?
“I would recommend seeing your dentist as soon as any of the symptoms listed previously arise – especially if the pain is constant or frequently recurring,” Dr Jethwa advises. If TMD is affecting your daily life (ie, if you become aware of symptoms when eating, drinking or sleeping), then you should seek medical advice.
“You may also need to seek medical advice from a doctor or by phoning 111, if you are experiencing headaches, a sore scalp, severe pain or vision problems in addition to the aforementioned symptoms.”
Often, TMD can be diagnosed after a physical exam. “This may consist of the dentist pressing around your jaw to check for any signs of pain and discomfort,” says Dr Jethwa. “The dentist will also need to check the range of motion of your jaw. In some cases, an x-ray may be required. The dentist may also refer you to a joint specialist.”
What are the treatment options for TMD?
Your dentist may recommend a mouthguard, as a first port of call, to prevent any damage to the upper and lower teeth if teeth grinding occurs. “This will also keep the jaw in the correct position, relieving any pressure,” Dr Jethwa says.
“There are also ways you can ease the symptoms yourself, such as opting for soft foods, massaging the jaw muscles, taking paracetamol and applying a heat pack to the jaw. If damage has occurred to the teeth, then cosmetic dentistry treatments such as veneers and composite bonding may be desirable to alter the appearance of your smile.”
Botox is sometimes used by TMD sufferers to manage symptoms, too. But, says NHS GP Dr Aneesha Ahmad, botox can’t cure TMD. “Botulinum toxin injections work by temporarily relaxing muscles, although it’s important to note that this is not a permanent cure but rather a way to manage symptoms,” she says. “In the context of TMD, it’s used to target the muscles responsible for jaw clenching and grinding, and [injections] can reduce their activity. That can, in turn, alleviate pain and discomfort associated with the disorder.
If your TMD is caused by stress and anxiety, it’s worth exploring ways to manage mental wellbeing, such as incorporating more stress-relieving practices (yoga and meditation, for example) into your routine, and addressing the root cause of stress, too. Therapy may also help to relieve feelings of anxiety. And, of course, it’s always worth getting checked out by your dentist or doctor if you’re worried about symptoms.