It is natural for the body to go through some wear and tear as we get older. Many of my patients feel these effects in their joints and bones. They come to me frequently for treatment of arthritis in the back or legs, but I don’t get as many complaints about jaw pain. This may be due to the fact that people who experience facial soreness or difficulty chewing do not realize that weak joints—not simple old age—are to blame.
These painful joints in your jaw are known as TMJ Syndrome. TMJ refers to temporomandibular joints which are the lower part of the jaw to the sides of the head, just in front of the ears. Approximately one third of the population has experienced some level of TMJ, but extreme cases are rare. It is important to be aware of the symptoms and causes of TMJ so you can recognize this condition before it escalates and severely impacts your life.
Know the Causes and Symptoms
Like all the joints in your body, the TMJ can succumb to osteoarthritis, the wearing down of joints due to aging. Rheumatoid arthritis can also be the cause of TMJ, as this inflammatory disease may erode cartilage and bone, weakening the joint. Often, a dentist will be the first to diagnose a patient with TMJ. Your dentist is most likely to notice the effects of grinding and clenching, which often occur during sleep. Your dentist may also notice if your bite alignment is off or if you have a weak bite. All these things may be factors in TMJ syndrome.
My older patients are not the only ones who experience TMJ. An injury to the jaw can cause TMJ symptoms that recur if untreated. Stress is also one of the leading causes, and it can strike at any age. Stress tends to cause the grinding and clenching that weaken and strain the jaw. If you are able to detect that you are grinding during the night (maybe your spouse has noticed) I would suggest first trying some stress reduction techniques like therapy, massage or meditation.
The most common TMJ symptom is pain in the jaw area. You may also have sore shoulders, neck or back. Pain when chewing food and trouble swallowing are irritating, but common signs. You may hear clicking and popping sounds when you talk or chew due to improper jaw alignment.
This faulty alignment can also cause swelling of your face, headaches, dizziness and nausea. Due to proximity, the TMJ joints can have an effect on the ears, causing ringing or hearing problems. In extreme cases of TMJ syndrome, the jaw can become locked, in which case you should immediately seek treatment.
Manage Your Flare-Ups
TMJ symptoms can be relieved relatively quickly, provided you practice good habits of self-care. If you are prone to TMJ pain, avoid chewing gum and break the habit of chewing on fingernails or pens. When symptoms flare, your goal should be to give your jaw a much-needed rest. This means switching to soft foods, supporting your jaw with the back of your hand when yawning and relieving pressure with a neck support pillow or a rolled up towel.
You can reduce the risk of jaw pain everyday by having good posture. When sitting at your desk, make sure your chin does not jut forward. If you also experience back pain, a chiropractor may be able to correct misaligned joints in your spine and pelvis, as well as the TMJ.
Other natural alternative treatments for TMJ include acupuncture, which can reduce pain and relieve stress. Naprapathy is a system of manipulating damaged connective tissue, which cause structural imbalance in the body that irritates the nervous system and causes pain. This treatment may be a solution if your TMJ is caused by an injury that has damaged your musculoskeletal alignment.
With so many avenues of relief to explore, I know that none of my patients need be subjected to chronic suffering. Finding the cause of your TMJ pain and experimenting with the techniques and treatments outlined above will put you on the road to a pain free life too!
Photo Credit: Michal Marcol