A Guide to TMJ/TMD

If you ask most people what the most complex joint in the body is, few will get it right. Most will suggest knees or hips. Others might answer fingers or toes. But the correct answer is your jaw. The jaw joint is also know as the temporomandibular joint, or TMJ for short. The TMJ is the joint that attaches your jaw to your skull. At this point, there is a complicated network of bone structure, muscles and nerves which criss-cross. Because this is such a complex joint, any stresses or strains placed on it can reverberate around the system and affect other areas of the body.

Think of it as a road system. A problem at the busiest junction in town – let’s say it is a broken traffic light – can cause the traffic to gridlock. So even though the broken traffic light may be streets away, it can still cause the traffic to stop moving all over town.

So when the ‘traffic stops’, what sorts of problems can it cause? There is plenty of debate over what exactly TMJ can lead to. However, dental experts and doctors agree that TMJ disorders encapsulate a wide range of problems, including pain in the face, jaw, teeth, head, neck and shoulders. Some doctors also believe that TMJ Disorder is responsible for back pains. Even issues such as snoring, migraines, ear infections and breathing problems are sometimes attributed to stresses and strains on the jaw joint.

TMJ disorder can affect anyone. There is no age range and young children can be particularly susceptible to problems caused by the TMJ. In fact, it is probably fair to say that most of us have some issue – however mild – which relates to our TMJ. After all, TMJ problems related to how our teeth ‘bite’ together and very few of us have a perfect ‘bite’.

TMJ disorder is usually caused by having a malocclusion, or a ‘bad bite’. This can mean an underbite or an overbite, but in either case, the result is that the teeth do not site together properly when you bite down. A malocclusion can be either mild or severe and, when the teeth do not sit together properly, it causes unusual stresses and strains on the jaw joint when you talk, chew and swallow. Considering that these are the kinds of actions we are doing pretty much day in, day out, you can imagine how those stresses and strains build up into some serious aches and pains.

Occasionally, a malocclusion can also be caused by trauma to the teeth or jaw. But whether the misalignment of your teeth is natural or caused by an accident, it can cause a domino effect that leads to other aches and pains throughout the body.

Can TMJ disorders be treated or fixed? Depending on the cause of your malocclusion, there are a number of steps that your dentist or doctor can recommend to relieve the pain and stress on your jaw.

Firstly, you could simply try painkillers. This will not address the issue of a bad bite, but if it is not a severe TMJ disorder then painkillers may help. If you are grinding your teeth at night, your doctor may recommend that you tackle your night-time bruxism with a mouthguard. This approach means that you relieve the pain, yet also take steps to protect your teeth for the future.

Alternatively, your dentist may be able to ease the stresses and strains on your bite by making slight adjustments to your teeth. It could be that your malocclusion is caused by missing or broken teeth. By replacing these and recontouring other teeth, your dentist can improve your bite and hopefully reduce the pain it causes. Alternatively, seeing an orthodontist and moving the teeth by using a brace may help.

If the malocclusion is severe, it may be that surgery is the only option. A severe malocclusion could mean that the whole jawbone is misaligned rather than simply the teeth. In these cases, your dentist will refer you to an oral and maxillofacial surgeon. By making incisions in your jaw, the surgeon can move pieces of it so that the jaw can be repositioned in the perfect way.