A Beginner’s Guide to TMJ treatment

The temporomandibular joint, also known as the TMJ, is the joint located between the upper and lower jaws, which performs a set of complex movements allowing us to speak, chew, etc. Any problems related their mechanics can result in pain and/or impaired function and require TMJ treatment. 

What is TMJ?

The temporomandibular joint syndrome, or TMJ disorder, is a condition that affects the muscles, ligaments, and nerves attached to and surrounding the ball-and-socket joints that connect our upper and lower jaws. The TMJ is responsible for many functions vital for the well-being of our body. For instance, if we are unable to open our mouth, we will not be able to eat food, drink water or keep ourselves nourished. If we are unable to chew our food, we will not be able to digest it properly. If we are unable to swallow what we eat, we can starve or become severely malnourished. These are a few of the most critical functions performed by the TMJ.

Common symptoms of TMJ disorders

The most common symptoms of TMJ disorders are pain and inflammation of the joint. There are many causes that can result in this condition, including:

  • Nocturnal teeth grinding, also known as bruxism
  • Stress
  • Malalignment of the jaws and teeth
  • Jaw dislocation
  • Bone disorders, such as arthritis
  • Direct blow or injury to the TMJ
  • Improper bite
  • Habitual jaw clenching

Causes and treatment of TMJ

While there are many ways in which TMJ disorders can be treated, it is most important to first figure out the cause of the problem. The success of the treatment depends entirely upon eliminating the cause of the pain. Management of temporomandibular joint pain may include medication, exercise and physiotherapy, lifestyle modifications and dental appliances such as night guards and bite plates.

In this case, diagnosis plays a vital role in treating and managing the condition. For instance, if a dentist only prescribes anti-inflammatory painkillers to the patient without highlighting stress as the primary cause of the disorder, the medication will eventually fail and the patient will continue to suffer. Such patients habitually clench their jaws and grind their teeth, which is why the first problem that needs to the treated is their stress, anxiety or depression.

Night-time teeth grinding is not always associated with anxiety and has been seen in both adults and children. The treatment in this case, once again, cannot only be the intervention of drugs. Specialized dental appliances such as bite plates and night guards are custom-fabricated for such patients to relieve the additional load on the joints and to prevent further damage to the enamel and dentin of the teeth. Bruxism not only damages the TMJ but also wears out the mineralized portion

Dentists can also determine if the cause of the disorder stems from problems related to jaw rotation, improper bite and malalignment of the teeth with the help of a full mouth radiograph and cephalometric analysis. In these cases, complete orthodontic treatment is advised, which uses specialized appliances and braces to fix bite, alignment, crowding, spacing and rotation-related issues over a span of 12 months or more.

If the pain and inflammation of the joint is found to be stemming from bone disorders such as arthritis (osteo, degenerative, rheumatoid or traumatic) based on radiographs, the treatment is usually a combination therapy. Patients are given non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and are advised to take a soft diet. They may also be required to wear a splint at night to minimize and control jaw movement.

In most cases, TMJ pain can be relieved with the help of muscle relaxants, NSAIDs, ice packs, massages and gentle exercises, but the complete treatment of the condition involves treating the root cause of the problem.

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