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Symptoms, causes and treatment options for TMJ disorder

Headaches, ear pain or trouble swallowing? You might have a TMJ disorder

By Dr. Virginia Reed

The human jaw is like a sliding hinge that goes up and down, left and right.

When our jaw is working properly, we don’t even think about it while eating, talking or drinking. When it’s not working correctly, though, the pain can be unbearable and present itself in the form of headaches, ear pain, popping or clicking sensations, difficulty chewing, pain when yawning, trouble swallowing and facial tenderness.

The cause might be a Temporomandibular Joint (TMJ) disorder. The TMJ is the joint between the jaw and skull; a TMJ disorder can emerge when there are problems with the joint, jaw muscles and/or nerves.

The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR) notes that TMJ disorders affect an estimated 10 million Americans at any given time. The NIDCR also notes that women are more likely to develop symptoms than men.

Physical therapists who specialize in the treatment of TMJ disorders focus on improving the quality of movement of the affected joint, as well as teaching patients how to focus on relaxation, stretching and releasing tight muscles and scar tissue that cause pain or discomfort. Patients also can learn techniques to regain normal jaw movements.

It’s important to know the symptoms, causes and treatment options for TMJ disorders.

Symptoms of TMJ Disorders

The symptoms of TMJ disorders can vary in number and intensity. According to the American Physical Therapy Association, common symptoms include:

  • Jaw pain or fatigue
  • Temporomandibular Joint pain
  • Ear pain or ringing of the ear (tinnitus)
  • Difficulty chewing
  • Locking jaw joints
  • Jaw clicking, locking or popping
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Trouble swallowing or the feeling that something is stuck in the throat

For some, the pain associated with TMJ disorders can be temporary. However, others experience chronic jaw pain for weeks, months or even years.

Causes of TMJ Disorders

One of the primary causes of TMJ disorders is developing instability due to poor jaw posture or neck alignment. These changes can alter the function of the disc of the joint, as well as the pull of muscles that guide a jaw’s movement, thus causing painful grinding and irritation of the joint. Medical professionals no longer attribute TMJ disorders to a single cause. Instead, genetics and natural causes often combine with preventable actions to create jaw pain.

Potential causes include poor posture, teeth grinding, trauma to the jaw or teeth, stress, excessive gum chewing, arthritis and recent surgery.

The Mayo Clinic notes four factors that may increase an individual’s likelihood of developing a TMJ disorder, including having rheumatoid arthritis or osteoarthritis, a jaw injury, chronic teeth grinding or clenching, and connective tissue diseases such as Hypermobility Spectrum Disorder.

Why Choose Physical Therapy to Treat TMJ Disorders

Physical therapists are certified to evaluate and treat TMJ disorders without the use of prescription medications. They start with a comprehensive exam to determine the root cause of a problem, then create a personalized plan to relieve pain and restore natural jaw movements.

The benefits of physical therapy’s manual approach to treating TMJ disorders include increasing range of motion and postural awareness, decreasing pain and muscle guarding, restoring joint movement around a normal physiological axis and preventing unnecessary drug use while providing treatment.

Have you considered orthopedic rehabilitation to improve your jaw function? If pain or discomfort lasts more than a few days, it might be time to see a physical therapist.

About the Author

Dr. Virginia Reed is a physical therapist and Southwest Florida regional director for FYZICAL Therapy & Balance Centers, which has more than 430 locations in 45 states. For more information, please visit fyzical.com.

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