There are about 360 joints in your body where bones and cartilage intersect. Each of these joints is important for helping your body to function and move. If a joint is affected by an injury or health condition, this can lead to aches, pains and other symptoms. Joint pain can range from mild discomfort during movement to severe pain that can affect your quality of life.

There may be a problem with your jaw's temporomandibular joints (TMJs) if you:

  • feel pain or aching in your jaw
  • are feeling pain near your ear
  • you have trouble opening or closing your jaws
  • you hear clicking or popping sounds when you chew
  • feel persistent pain or discomfort in your neck or upper back

Be sure to talk to your dentist or doctor about these symptoms. Keep reading to find out more about joint disorders and how a dental professional can help.

What are temporomandibular joints (TMJs)?

There are two joints that connect your lower jaw to your upper jaw and skull. These are called the temporomandibular joints (TMJs). They help your jaw move when you eat, speak, yawn and perform other jaw movements. One of the common symptoms of TMJ disorders is jaw pain near the ear.

TMJ disorders (sometimes referred to as TMD or TMJD) can occur when the usual function of the jaw is restricted. In addition to pain in your jaw, ears or other parts of your face, other symptoms include locking of the jaw, unusual noises from the joints or a change in the way your teeth fit together.

What causes TMJD?

There's no single cause for TMJD. Sometimes there may be multiple causes, or the cause may be unknown. If the likely cause is known, this can help your dentist or other health professional to recommend suitable treatments.

You're likelier to develop a TMJD if you already have a joint disorder such as osteoarthritis or bursitis, a condition such as gout or rheumatoid arthritis, or if you grind your teeth or clench your jaw when you're sleeping, stressed or concentrating (a condition called bruxism).

TMJD may also be caused by a jaw or joint injury, a change in your bite after having a filling, a crown or dentures fitted. Your dentist can perform a physical examination of the joint and may take x-rays, a CT or a MRI scan to obtain more information about your hard and soft tissues.

How can jaw pain be treated?

If you have jaw pain, these symptoms could be managed at home by resting the joint as much as possible, applying ice or a cold compress, or taking over-the-counter pain relief medication. However, it’s important to consult a dental or medical professional first about any symptoms or treatments.

If you have TMJ problems, you should try to avoid hard or chewy foods, cut food into bite-size pieces and try to avoid opening your mouth wide – for example, when yawning. Your dentist may also suggest jaw exercises to be performed regularly to help strengthen the joints and jaw muscles.

If the problem continues, your dentist may recommend long-term rehabilitation options or refer you to a specialist. Knowing what's causing your TMJ problem or other joint disorder is useful and often necessary for developing an effective treatment plan.

If your TMJD is due to an uneven bite, your dentist may recommend orthodontics to help align your jaws correctly or dental treatments such as crown lengthening or shortening to help your teeth fit together more evenly.

If you tend to clench your jaw when you're stressed, you could benefit from relaxation techniques or therapy services. If you are likely to grind or clench your teeth while you're asleep, your dentist may recommend a custom mouthguard to be worn at night and help prevent your teeth from touching each other.

How can I help avoid jaw pain?

Joint disorders such as TMJD can't always be prevented, but you can sometimes lower your risk of developing these problems by making lifestyle changes.

For example, you can:

  • try to manage your stress levels through stress management techniques
  • help maintain appropriate posture
  • try to avoid overworking the joints by not chewing gum or biting your nails
  • help identify and manage habits such as teeth grinding and clenching.

A qualified healthcare professional can help you manage these issues if you’re not sure where to start, as well as advise other ways to help lower your risks.

Last but not least, keeping up with regular dental visits also increases the chance of your dentist spotting problems at an early stage. To make an appointment, find your local Bupa Dental clinic.

References

[1] healthdirect. Temporomandibular joint disorder [Online] 2015 [Updated August 2017, accessed April 2018] Available from: www.healthdirect.gov.au