What is TMJ Disorder?

Temporomandibular Joint Disorder

Jaw Pain
Woman With Jaw Pain. Digital Vision/Getty Images

The temporomandibular joint (TMJ) is the joint that joins your jaw to your skull. This joint is in front of the ears; you can easily locate it by opening and closing your mouth and feeling the joint with your fingers. When there is a problem with the joint, muscles or the ligaments around this joint, the condition is called TMJ or TMJ disorder.

People who have TMJ disorder may have some of the following symptoms:

  • facial pain
  • pain while chewing
  • popping or clicking of the jaw
  • headaches
  • earaches
  • difficulty opening and closing the mouth
  • locked jaw
  • generalized pain and tenderness around the joint
  • tinnitus
  • a history of poor sleep or a diagnosed sleep disorder

Who Gets TMJ?

TMJ disorders are more common in women than in men, and more common in white people than in African-Americans. Other disorders or conditions that have been associated with TMJ include:

  • rheumatoid arthritis
  • degenerative joint diseases
  • anxiety or other psychiatric disorders that lead to chronic jaw clenching or teeth grinding
  • dental malocclusion
  • tongue tie (ankylosis)
  • bruxism
  • some birth defects

What Causes TMJ?

It was originally thought that TMJ was due to misalignment of the upper and lower teeth. While this still does have a role in causing TMJ there are many more factors that can cause this painful disorder including:

  • trauma to the jaw or joint
  • anxiety, stress, or depression
  • posture of the head and neck
  • grinding teeth
  • chewing gum (when excessive)

How Is TMJ Diagnosed?

TMJ disorder is usually diagnosed by an otolaryngologist (ENT). Many individuals seek the help of an ENT because the jaw pain leads them to believe they have an ear infection. The doctor will perform a physical exam, which could include looking inside your mouth for signs of wear on your teeth from grinding and clenching; assessing your neck muscles for spasms; and signs of joint tenderness.

The physician may also measure how far you are able to open your mouth. Sometimes, your doctor will request a CT or MRI scan to get a better look at any damage to the joint.

How Is TMJ Treated?

Treatment is based on the severity of the disorder. For minor cases, ice and rest may be the best bet, along with over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen. People with a TMJ disorder should avoid chewing gum, grinding teeth and clenching their jaw. Sometimes a bite guard can help with this.

Relaxation techniques at least 30 minutes a day can help. Some people may benefit from physical therapy, muscle relaxants, steroids, friction massage and ultrasonic treatment. In severe cases surgery may be necessary.


American Academy of Otolaryngology Head and Neck Surgery. TMJ. Accessed: November 5, 2015 from http://www.entnet.org/content/tmj.

Goldenberg, David; Goldstein, Bradley J. Handbook of Otolaryngology Head and Neck Surgery. 2011. p 73-77.

Medline Plus. TMJ disorders. Accessed: December 21, 2011 from http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/001227.htm.

Scrivani, S.J. & Mehta, N.R. (2015). Temoromandibular disorders in adults. Accessed on November 5, 2015 from http://www.uptodate.com.

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