The TMJ (temporomandibular joint) is the ball and socket joint on each side of the head where the lower jawbone joins the skull. Several muscles, ligaments, and discs make this complex joint smoothly work in a variety of positions.
Disorders of the TMJ can be cause by trauma, degeneration of the joint, poor posture, arthritis, or other forms of inflammation. However, experts believe that the primary cause is muscle response to emotional stress or anxiety. Many people respond to emotional stress by clenching or grinding the teeth called bruxism. Most people are unaware of bruxism because it often occurs during sleep. Pain or tenderness in the jaw, in the teeth, or around the ear results from the pressures created by constant contraction of the muscles of the TMJ. If left untreated, irreversible damage to the cartilage can result in clicking, popping, or chronic pain in the joint.
In some cases, the symptoms of TMJ disorder go away without treatment. Anti-inflammatory medications like ibuprofen (Advil or Motrin) can assist in alleviating symptoms. Prescription muscle relaxants can also be used to combat episodes of intense bruxism. If symptoms persist, the next line of treatment is to make an appliance called a splint or night guard. Splints are affective at preventing excessive wear of tooth surfaces, reducing muscle pain, alleviating headaches, preventing permanent joint damage, and lessening clenching behaviour.