Sometimes, the source of a jaw injury is obvious: You suffered a fall, or received a blow to the face while playing sports. At other times, the reason for aching and soreness in this area isn’t quite so clear—perhaps you’re under a lot of stress, or you chew gum constantly. And sometimes, the pain or discomfort has no obvious cause you can see. Temporomandibular joint disorder (TMD) can stem from a number of causes, ranging from traumatic injury to a subconscious teeth-grinding habit. Yet regardless of what caused it, this problem can be painful and debilitating.
Like other joints in the body, the temporomandibular joint (TMJ) is a complex structure that acts as a hinge or rotator, allowing your jaw to move freely. Each person has two TMJs (one left, one right), and you can feel both of them by placing your fingers in front of your ear lobes and opening or closing your jaw. Its particular structure—ball-like swellings (condyles) at the rear ends of the lower jaw bone, which fit into recesses on the left and right sides of the cranium—lets this joint cope with the powerful forces of the jaw muscles.
A traumatic injury to the jaw can involve damage to a number of the temporomandibular joint’s components—including the muscles, bones, nerves, and the soft disk of cartilage that helps the joint move smoothly. If the injury is an obvious one—an elbow to the face during a basketball game, for example—it’s quite possible that you will know right away whether the joint is damaged. In that case, you can have an immediate examination and seek appropriate treatment.
But sometimes, it may not be so easy to make the connection between TMJ problems and their cause. An automobile accident, for example, may not seem to involve the jaw directly; however, airbag deployment and cervical acceleration/deceleration (whiplash) injuries sometimes result in TMJ disorders. In other cases, you might be examined at a doctor’s office or emergency room after an injury, and then sent home—only to find that the pain and stiffness in your jaw doesn’t go away, or gets worse over time.
If this is the case, it’s important to see your dentist as soon as possible. A number of things could be causing the temporomandibular joint problems you’re experiencing. These include displaced teeth, swelling and inflammation in and around the joint space, a minor fracture in one of the bones, or a dislocation of the joint’s components. All can cause pain ranging from minor to severe—and the sooner they are treated, the less likely they are to cause more serious damage.
In addition to major trauma, microtrauma can also cause TMJ problems. Microtrauma is often internal, and may be caused by a constant chewing, teeth clenching or grinding habit—whether brought on by stress in the daytime, or occurring only while you’re asleep at night. Whether or not you’re aware of these destructive habits, you may experience the symptoms of TMJ disorder, including pain, reduced movement of the jaw, and inability to close the mouth properly.
Fortunately, modern dentistry offers a number of treatments for TMJ problems, ranging from conservative (moist heat, rest, and muscle-relaxing medications) to rarely needed, complex procedures (orthodontics or surgery). The important thing to remember is that if symptoms don’t go away on their own in a reasonable amount of time, then it’s time to seek professional guidance from your dentist or healthcare provider.
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