Jaw pain might indicate complex medical problems

11/1/2018, 2:43 p.m. | Updated on 11/1/2018, 2:43 p.m.

If you experience pain in the joints of the jaw, do not just succumb to teasing about eating or talking too much. You could have TMJ disease. TMJ stands for temporomandibular joint, also known as the jaw joint.

TMJ Awareness Month in November provides an opportunity to learn more about this small but important joint and the complex set of conditions that can interfere with its proper functioning. The information presented here by the Medical Society of the State of New York is based on data from the TMJ Association and the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research of the National Institutes of Health.

The TMJs are located in front of each ear and attach the lower jaw, or mandible, to the skull. To locate and feel the joint on each side of your head, place your fingers just in front of your ears and open your mouth. Although small, these joints are important and useful, allowing you to open and close your mouth and to speak, swallow and chew.

TMJ problems not clearly understood

TMJ diseases and disorders are a complex and poorly understood set of conditions characterized by pain in the jaw and its muscles and by limitations in the ability to speak, make facial expressions, eat, chew and swallow. The causes of TMJ diseases and disorders are not yet clearly defined. Conditions such as arthritis and trauma that routinely affect other joints of the body can also affect the TMJ. Some people report experiencing TMJ problems after dental procedures, the insertion of a breathing tube in preparation for surgery or stress associated with clenching or grinding the teeth. It is not clear, however, whether stress is the cause of the clenching and grinding and subsequent jaw pain or the result of dealing with chronic jaw pain and dysfunction. Researchers continue to explore how behavioral, psychological and physical factors might combine to cause TMJ disorders.

Symptoms associated with TMJ include the following:

• Facial pain

• Pain in the jaw and surrounding areas, including the ear

• Inability to open the mouth completely or comfortably

• Bite not quite right or uncomfortable

• Jaw locking open or closed

• Headaches

• Neck, shoulder and back pain

Swelling on the side of the face

Popping and clicking sounds have sometimes been considered to be symptoms of TMJ problems, but these sounds can also occur in normal joints. Unless there are other symptoms, such as pain and locking of the jaw, clicking sounds do not usually require treatment. Occasional discomfort in the jaw joint or chewing muscles is common and is generally not a cause for concern.

Because the exact causes and symptoms of TMJ disorders are not clear, diagnosing these disorders can be confusing. At present, there is no widely accepted standard test to correctly identify TMJ disorders. In approximately 90 percent of cases, however, the patient’s description of symptoms, combined with a simple physical examination of the face and jaw, provides information useful for diagnosing these disorders. Checking the patient’s dental and medical history is very important. In most cases, this evaluation provides enough information to locate the pain or jaw problem, to make a diagnosis and to start treatment to relieve pain or jaw locking.