TMJ Description

"TMJ" is short for temporomandibular joint, a complex set of joints which attaches the lower jaw to the skull. Sometimes TMJ disorders are abbreviated TMD, or CMD (Craniomandibular disorders). These joints are very important-- chewing, eating and swallowing, and speaking can be impacted if they do not work properly. Pain in the TMJ can interfere with everyday activities, and can lead to or co-exist with other problems like headaches, back and neck pain, and stress.

Sometimes TMJ can lead to problems that don't seem related to your jaw. Such symptoms as neck pains, ear aches, back pains, and headaches could have their origins in dysfunctions in your jaw joints.

TMJ disorder is quite common. Millions of people have some symptoms, but only a small percent, perhaps 5-15%, need treatment at a given time. There are many causes of TMJ:
  • Accidents: trauma or shock to the head and neck caused by falls, sports injuries, car accidents, etc.
  • Related health problems--arthritis, ear and eye problems, sinus and tooth infections.
  • Bad habits, such as clenching and grinding of the teeth, poor posture, improper sleeping habits.
  • Bite problems, where the upper and lower teeth do not fit properly. Poorly fitting dentures can also be a factor, as can broken or missing teeth.
  • Interference with normal development, such as systemic childhood illnesses.
  • Genetic or congenital abnormalities.

TMJ can have many different and changing symptoms. Some of the most common are:

  • Soreness and tenderness in jaw muscles
  • Clicking or popping noises when opening and closing the jaw
  • Pain in or around the ear (over the TM joint) when no ear problems, such as infections, are present
  • Certain types of headaches (especially upon wakening) and neck aches
  • A ringing or buzzing in the ears
  • Muscle spasms in the face and neck
  • Jaws that "get stuck" or lock open or closed
  • Dizziness
  • A feeling of pressure in the sinus area
  • Changes in the way the teeth fit together

TMJ symptoms are not easy to diagnose, because they are often similar to other disorders. Some symptoms, such as headaches, can be caused by other problems. Many people have symptoms similar to TMJ once in a while. For example, when you go to the dentist and have your mouth open for a long period of time, you might notice clicking and popping in your jaw. Similar symptoms may result from intubation during surgery. These symptoms general diminish over time.

Even skilled dentists can have problems determining if a patient's symptoms are TMJ, and if the symptoms are severe enough to need treatment. TMJ really covers many specific jaw joint and muscle problems--over two dozen, in fact, ranging from the effects of trauma or accidents (including whiplash), to arthritis and infections.(See the Glossary)

Diagnosing the problem always involves a full oral examination and a review of your medical history. Your care provider will seek to rule out other problems for your pain and discomfort, and this may require referrals to other specialists, such as neurologists; ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialists; rheumatologists, etc. Depending on the problem, your dentist may wish to use X-rays or other imaging techniques to get a clearer picture of the TM joint itself. In some instances, he or she may take a cast of your jaw so that a "model" of your jaw workings can be made. For more information on "TMJ" visit our TMJ Links.