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Young Woman Holding the Side of Her Face in Pain --- Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

Young Woman Holding the Side of Her Face in Pain — Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

TMJ stands for the temporomandibular joint–the joint where your lower jaw fits into the skull, the joint that moves when you open and close your mouth. Temporomandibular joint disorder (TMD) is a neuromuscular condition that often is caused when the bite is not in balance. This can lead to pain and other symptoms commonly referred to as “TMJ”.

The pain associated with TMD include: pain in the joint with movement of the jaw, clicking or popping in the joint, aching in the area in front of the ear or in the jaw, a feeling of stiffness or tight muscles, locking jaws, headaches. Because the muscles and joint work together, a problem with either one can lead to discomfort. Injury to the joint (stretched ligaments, disk slippage, arthritic degeneration) can be the source or the result of the dysfunction. Stress, also, can aggravate the problem–because stress often causes a person to clench and grind his teeth (bruxism), which is a motion that puts pressure on the joint and can cause muscle spasms.

The first line of treatment are things you can try: keep your jaw muscles relaxed, keep your teeth apart (relieves pressure on the joint), avoid opening wide, avoid biting into hard foods, avoid excessive chewing (i.e., chewing gum), practice good posture.

If the problem persists, Dr. Taylor may recommend that you wear an occlusal guard (“bruxing splint” or “night guard”). This is an acrylic mouthpiece that fits over the upper teeth. In addition to preventing wear on the teeth from bruxing, it helps you stop bruxing–by positioning the jaw in a slightly-opened position, relaxing the muscles. The relaxed muscles and the shape of the occlusal guard also allow the jaw to move into its proper position and, in time, reduce pain. The occlusal guard is a very effective treatment.