Medical corner: Jaw pain – an overview of TMD

  • Published
  • By Capt. (Dr.) Daniel Lapidus
  • 71st Medical Operations Squadron
One of the common complaints I encounter as a dentist is "TMJ." Patients usually mean that their jaw hurts. 

Literally, TMJ refers to the temporomandibular joint, the joint that allows the jaw to move. The sometimes painful symptoms associated with the jaws are called "TMDs," or temporomandibular disorders, and can be the result of many different things. 

The TMJ is considered the most complex joint in the body. It hinges when you open your mouth, slides when you open really wide, and rotates when you move your jaw side to side. 

Your lower jaw has a ball on the end called the condyle. This fits into an indentation on your upper jaw called the articular fossa. These two bony areas are connected by a series of ligaments making your jaw, in essence, a ball bearing. If anything goes wrong with the way all these pieces fit together, you can have jaw pain. 

More often than not, jaw pain is not related to your TMJ. The number one cause of jaw pain is the muscles that hold your jaws together and allow you to chew. The pain is the result of overusing these muscles through grinding or clenching your teeth. 

Fortunately, this is usually routine to treat. Learning how to relax those muscles, stretching them, applying hot compresses and learning the stressors that lead to overworking them can make the pain go away. 

The rate of recurrence is very high though, so many people with chronic jaw pain end up doing these exercises forever -- the good news is it can take as little as 10 minutes a day. 

Another common reason for jaw pain is sinus problems. Anyone who has ever had a sinus infection knows that it makes your teeth and jaw hurt. The good news is when your sinuses clear up, your pain goes away. 

This is particularly common in areas like Oklahoma where allergens are plentiful. The best way to treat this cause of jaw pain is to see your doctor and take whatever medications they give you exactly as prescribed. 

Occasionally, jaw pain is related to the TMJ, and this is when treatment gets more complicated. The jaw is subject to all the same problems as any other joint -- arthritis, fatigue and bone loss to name a few. 

The most important aspect of these problems is accurate diagnosis. Dentists have multiple treatments to aid in these cases where the TMJ itself is the problem. Some of these include splint therapy -- wearing a custom guard to limit the forces on your TMJ. 

Medications to reduce the rate at which the TMJ breaks down and surgical options are available. 

The best thing you can do to ensure your TMJs stay healthy is seek treatment early if you think you might have a problem. 

Here are a few keys to remember:
· Jaw noise isn't necessarily a problem -- see your dentist if the noise changes or has pain associated with it.
· The best treatment is early and frequent intervention -- most of the time without medication so don't hesitate getting checked out.
· The right person to see is a dentist and expect to get some X-rays taken. 

Jaw pain can also be caused by chronic headaches, tooth problems, nerve pain and even a heart attack. If you think you may be suffering from TMD, contact your dentist. 

Active duty Airmen can call 213-7307 for an appointment. Call that same number for a list of local civilian dentists who accept United Concordia and Delta Dental insurance.