A woman holding the left side of her jaw

Temporomandibular Joint Dysfunction Symptoms

The temporomandibular joints (TMJ) connect the lower jaw to the skull. They slide and rotate, allowing the jaw to move up, down and from side to side. When these joints are not working properly, it is known as temporomandibular joint dysfunction or temporomandibular joint disorder (TMD). 

Here are some of the most common temporomandibular joint dysfunction (TMD) symptoms and how to relieve them. 

What Is Temporomandibular Joint Dysfunction?

The TMJ is among the most complex and frequently used joints in the body. Therefore, it is prone to wear and tear and inflammation, which can lead to TMD. There are over 30 different conditions classed as forms of TMD. 

Some involve issues with the joint itself, such as disc disorders or joint degeneration. Others involve the muscles that control the opening and closing of the jaw. 

TMD can be caused by injury or overuse. For example, people like musicians who frequently hold their jaw in awkward positions may be more prone to TMD. Stress can also lead to or aggravate TMD as it can cause people to clench their jaw muscles. Tooth grinding, also known as bruxism, is another common cause of TMD. 

TMD occurs most frequently in young adults and is slightly more common in females than males. It sometimes occurs alongside other conditions that alter the way people experience pain, such as irritable bowel syndrome and fibromyalgia. 

8 Common Temporomandibular Joint Dysfunction Symptoms

Below are eight common symptoms of temporomandibular joint dysfunction.

1. Jaw Pain

Jaw pain is the most common symptom of temporomandibular joint dysfunction. It is often described as a dull ache around the jaw, ear, or temple. However, some people experience sharp, sudden pain with TMD. 

The area may feel tender to pressure and the pain will likely become worse during activities like chewing. Stress and anxiety can make TMD pain worse as people may clench their jaw, leading to muscle tension. 

2. Jaw Stiffness or Locking

People with TMD may have difficulty opening their mouth fully or may experience stiffness when chewing food. In some cases, the jaw may lock, making it difficult to open or close the mouth. 

3. Clicking or Popping Sounds 

Clicking and popping sounds when moving the jaw can be normal and are not necessarily a sign of TMD. However, when accompanied by pain or stiffness, they could be a symptom of temporomandibular joint dysfunction and should be brought to the attention of a dentist or doctor. 

4. Headaches

TMD can cause tense facial muscles, leading to headaches. They usually occur around the temples and may feel similar to a tension headache. Of course, there are many different causes of headaches but if they occur frequently alongside jaw pain or stiffness, they could be a symptom of temporomandibular joint dysfunction. 

You May Also Like

5. Neck, Back, or Shoulder Pain

TMD can affect the connective tissue of muscles that control jaw, neck and shoulder function. This symptom of temporomandibular joint dysfunction is better known as myofascial pain. It can cause pain in the neck, shoulders, and upper back areas. 

6. Dental Problems

If TMD is a result of tooth grinding, it can cause dental problems such as sensitive teeth. If a person has a lot of dental issues but no other signs of poor oral health, it could be due to TMD. 

Not everyone who grinds their teeth is aware of the problem since it may happen primarily during sleep. However, a dentist should be able to recognize the signs and may recommend wearing a mouth guard at night. 

7. Ear Problems

TMD can cause earache or sensations of fullness in the ear. Some people may experience tinnitus (ringing or buzzing in the ear) and in severe cases, it may impair hearing. TMD can also affect the inner ear, causing vertigo or dizziness. People with vertigo may feel that the room is spinning or have difficulty with balance.  

8. Sleep Problems

TMD pain can make it difficult to get comfortable at night and might interfere with sleep. Since TMD is often associated with stress and anxiety, it is not uncommon for TMD and insomnia to occur at the same time. 

Treating Temporomandibular Joint Dysfunction 

TMD often gets better by itself and does not always require treatment. Simple lifestyle changes can help people manage temporomandibular joint dysfunction symptoms and speed up their recovery.

Some changes include:

  • Eat soft food and avoid excessively hard or chewy items.
  • Do not chew gum, pen caps, or fingernails.
  • Use both sides of the mouth to chew and avoid biting food with the front teeth.
  • Avoid yawning widely or clenching the jaw.
  • Do not rest the chin on the hands.
  • Use ice or heat packs and over-the-counter anti-inflammatories to manage pain.
  • Practice stress management techniques, such as breathing exercises, meditation, or yoga.

If the pain is severe and does not get better by itself, or is interfering with daily activities, see a doctor or dentist. They might recommend stronger medication, physical therapy, or psychotherapy to help manage stress. Surgery is usually a last resort and should only be considered if all other treatment options have been exhausted.