Below your ears, on each side of your face, you have a temporomandibular joint (TMJ). This joint connects your lower jaw to your upper jaw with tendons, ligaments and muscles. “It helps you move your lower jaw when you eat, talk, yawn and sometimes when you breathe,” said Imran Patel, DMD, a dental sleep medicine specialist at Banner – University Medical Center Tucson.
Sometimes, you can have trouble with your TMJ. If so, you might notice headaches. That’s because the nerve responsible for the sensation of pain in your outer skull also accesses your TMJ. Your TMJ problem could cause hypersensitivity in the nerve and trigger other areas of the nerve to feel the pain.
When something goes wrong with your TMJ, you might also notice symptoms such as:
- Pain in the front of your ears when you open your mouth
- Pain when you chew
- Pain in your teeth that’s not caused by a dental problem
- Pain in the back or sides of your neck
- Ear pain that doesn’t respond to antibiotics
- Popping sounds, possibly with pain
- Not opening your mouth very wide because you’re afraid of pain or afraid your jaw will lock
- Moving your jaw to one side rather than straight down when you open your mouth
- Wear and tear on your teeth from grinding or clenching them
“The TMJ, chewing muscles, head and teeth are all triggered by the same nerve called the trigeminal nerve,” Dr. Patel said. “So, if one branch of the nerve is affected, it can radiate pain to other areas. For example, when you get a toothache, it can radiate to the head on the same side as the tooth and cause a headache.”
TMJ pain is linked with other types of headaches, such as migraines and tension headaches. So, treating TMJ pain may help make these headaches less intense.
What causes problems with your TMJ?
“Common causes of TMJ pain are teeth grinding, or bruxism, which happens in your sleep, and clenching, which happens during the day,” Dr. Patel said.
You could also develop TMJ problems after trauma, such as a fall, getting elbowed during sports, or being slapped in the face.
Medical conditions such as Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis can also cause symptoms in your TMJ.
How can you prevent TMJ problems?
A lot of problems with your TMJ develop slowly over time. So, if you spot early warning signs, talk to a specialist. You might notice if you:
- Grind or clench your teeth
- Wake up with headaches
- Feel like your ears are going to pop (like when you’re in an airplane or at high altitude)
- Feel your jaw pop
- Can’t open your mouth very wide
- Feel pain after a while when you’re chewing food
How can you treat TMJ pain?
“Combining multiple treatment approaches can reduce the pain and headaches much faster than a single approach, Dr. Patel said.
One option is to use splints you can wear at night to help decompress your joint and relax your muscles. Sometimes wearing orthotics in the day for a short time can help as well. And a few rounds of trigger point injections can help relax the chewing muscles and break up knots.
Other treatment options include:
- At-home exercises
- Physical therapy
- Prescription muscle relaxants and topical creams
- Steroid injections
- TMJ lavage, a noninvasive procedure involving irrigation of the upper joint area to clean out the joint
The bottom line
A range of jaw, head and neck problems can be traced back to the TMJ. But treatment combinations can help clear up the pain and alleviate your symptoms. To get help, talk to your doctor or connect with a Banner Health provider today.
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