Although you’re more likely to hear about pain occurring in certain parts of the body—like the knees, shoulders, and spine—the reality is that it can strike just about anywhere. The jaw is one region that doesn’t generally get much attention, but jaw problems are actually more common than you might think. A class of jaw-related issues called temporomandibular disorders affect millions of Americans each year, and the nagging symptoms that they create often need to be addressed.
The temporomandibular joint (TMJ) is a hinge joint that connects the part of the skull directly in front of the ears (temporal bone) to the lower jaw (mandible). It allows you move to your jaw up and down and from one side to the other, which is necessary for talking and chewing. Temporomandibular disorder, or TMD, is a general term used to describe a variety of conditions that cause pain and dysfunction in this joint and the facial muscles that surround it.
The definite cause of TMDs is still unclear, but some theories suggest that they may be due to injury in that region, grinding, or clenching teeth, osteoarthritis, or stress. Regardless of their cause, TMDs are generally classified as either muscle-related or joint-related depending on which part of the jaw is affected. Symptoms vary widely from patient to patient, with some of the most common signs of TMDs including:
- Jaw pain or tenderness, which can be on one or both sides of the jaw
- Aching pain in/around your ear or in your face
- Difficulty opening/closing the mouth or chewing
- Popping, clicking, or locking of the jaw
- Earaches or ringing in the ear
TMDs often occur with neck pain and headaches
Another notable characteristic of TMDs is that many patients will experience neck issues at the same time as their jaw symptoms. In some cases, neck-related problems can manifest as a headache, and research has shown that as many as 56 percent of patients who are treated for headaches also have a TMD. Experts believe that this relationship works in both directions, meaning that TMDs can contribute to the development of headaches, and vice versa. As a result of this connection, neck issues and headaches can mimic muscle pain in the jaw muscles, and it may therefore be difficult to distinguish the two conditions. This is also why it’s often best to treat TMDs and neck problems simultaneously, which we will discuss in one of our next posts.
The risk of developing TMDs is fairly low throughout childhood but rises slightly in adolescence around the teenage years, with girls being more likely to experience a problem than boys. In these younger ages, overexerting the jaw is believed to be the main culprit, which can occur from high levels of stress or anxiety, repeatedly clenching the jaw or grinding teeth, or from a traumatic injury. High stress levels can actually make kids more likely to tighten their jaws, and over time, these behaviors will change the alignment of one’s bite and affect the muscles used for chewing.
The risk for TMDs continues to increase into middle age, and the majority of cases are seen between 20–40 years. Approximately 10 percent of adults are currently affected by a TMD, and up to 7 percent will eventually seek out treatment because their symptoms are severe. Women are at least twice as likely to develop a TMD than men, and stress, jaw injuries, and jaw clenching are once again risk factors that could contribute. Unregulated stress and a long-term habit of jaw clenching will likely increase this risk even more on account of the repeated stress placed on the jaw over time.
Read our next post for a list of our top prevention strategies that will help to reduce your risk of developing a TMD.