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What you should know about TMJ

Millions of American adults suffer from chronic facial pain, such as jaw pain, headaches or earaches. The source of these aches and pains may be related to one or both of the temporomandibular joints. Located on each side of the head, these joints work together, with a complex system of muscles, ligaments, discs and bones, to make different movements for chewing and speaking.

What is TMJ?

Temporomandibular disorder, also known as TMJ, refers to a variety of conditions that affect temporomandibular joints, jaw muscles and facial nerves. TMJ may occur when the jaw twists during opening, closing or side-motion movements. If you have TMJ, you may experience these symptoms:

  • Pain in or around the ear
  •  Headaches and neck aches
  • Tenderness of the jaw or jaw muscles
  • Jaw pain or soreness that is more prevalent in the morning or late afternoon
  • Jaw pain when chewing, biting or yawning
  • Difficulty opening and closing the mouth
  • Clicking or popping noises when opening the mouth
  • Sensitive teeth


TMJ affects more than twice as many women as men and is the most common non-dental related chronic facial pain.

What causes TMJ?

Among the most common causes of TMJ are:

  • Arthritis
  • Misaligned bite (problem with the way teeth fit together)
  •  Jaw dislocation or injury

Can stress affect TMJ?

Stress is thought to be a factor in TMJ. Even strenuous physical tasks, such as lifting a heavy object or stressful situations, can aggravate TMJ by causing overuse of jaw muscles, specifically clenching or grinding teeth (also known as bruxism).

How is TMJ diagnosed?

Diagnosis is an important step before treatment. At present, there is no widely accepted, standard test to correctly identify TMJ. Other dental conditions, such as a toothache or sinus problems, can cause similar symptoms. Behavioral, psychological and physical factors may also combine to cause TMJ.

In about 90% of cases, your description of symptoms, combined with a simple physical examination of face and jaw by your dentist, provides useful information for diagnosing these disorders.

Your dentist may also take x-rays and make a cast of your teeth to see how your bite fits together, or request specialized x-rays of the temporomandibular joints. Your dentist may need to review your complete medical history, so always keep your dental office record up to date.

What if I think I have TMJ?

Keep in mind that for most people, discomfort from TMJ will eventually go away on its own. Simple self-care practices, such as exercising to reduce teeth-clenching caused by stress, can be effective in easing TMJ symptoms.

You can visit your dentist for conservative TMJ treatment, such as pain relievers and anti-inflammatories, oral splints and mouthguards, or corticosteroid injections.

Surgical procedures, such as open-joint surgery, are also an option if other treatments are ineffective. Note that these procedures involve more risks than other procedures do. Discuss the possible risks with your dentist and consider them carefully.

Along with your dentist, pain clinics in hospitals and universities can also provide you with treatment advice and provide second opinions.

Last updated February 3, 2022

The oral health information on this website is intended for educational purposes only. Always consult a licensed dentist or other qualified health care professional for any questions concerning your oral health.