TMJ Pain: 9 At-Home Treatments to Ease Jaw Discomfort

Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) and affiliated muscle disorders (TMD) can cause significant pain, making simple tasks like eating and talking a struggle. Here's how to take a bite out of TMJ pain.

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TMJ pain—discomfort in the temporomandibular joint—can stem from such causes as teeth grinding, stress, injury, autoimmune issues, or dental problems, among others.

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Ever been stopped short by a stabbing pain in your jaw? Have you struggled to eat a crunchy piece of bread, or corn on the cob? You could be suffering from a disorder of the temporomandibular joint (TMJ). According to The TMJ Association, Ltd., 35 million Americans (roughly 12 percent of the population) suffer from this type of disorder. While both men and women are afflicted, the majority of those who seek treatment for TMJ pain and other symptoms are women between 20 and 40 years of age.

What Is TMJ?

The TMJ acts as a hinge, connecting the jaw to the temporal bones of the skull. We have two of these—one on either side of our face. Without them, we wouldn’t be able to move our jaws enough to chew, talk, or yawn. Those who suffer from temporomandibular disorders (TMD) experience severe pain and discomfort in their TMJ on either one or both sides of their face.

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Best TMJ Treatments: 9 At-Home Options

Fortunately, there are measures you can take at home to cut back on TMJ pain. First, relax, suggests Richard Price, DMD and spokesperson for the American Dental Association.

Try calming exercises such as lightly touching your tongue to the roof of your mouth. This will help your jaw relax naturally. Avoid chewing on things like nails, pencils and ice. Become more aware of when you participate in these types of behaviors. Is it when you’re stressed, anxious, or concentrating? Try to become self-aware during those moments and focus on relaxing instead of clenching.

6 THINGS TO AVOID WHEN YOU SUFFER FROM TMD

  1. Hard foods
  2. Crunchy breads and bagels
  3. Chewing gum
  4. Extreme jaw movements (i.e. yawning, crunching ice, yelling, and singing)
  5. Resting your chin on your hand
  6. Holding the phone between your shoulder and ear

After that, consider the following at-home treatments for TMJ pain:

  1. Eat soft foods (e.g., mashed potatoes, rice, or cooked veggies) and avoid hard nuts, apples, and bagels.
  2. Take a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) medication such as ibuprofen or naproxen to help reduce pain and swelling.
  3. Apply a warm, damp washcloth to the sore area.
  4. Avoid opening your mouth wide (e.g., be careful when yawning and singing).
  5. Don’t chew gum.
  6. Chew on both sides.
  7. Don’t bite your fingernails or cheeks.
  8. Reduce stress. (For tips on how to do this, see our post 11 Proven Stress Relief Strategies.)
  9. Exercise your jaw. (See our post 7 Essential TMJ Exercises to Relieve Jaw Pain.)

So, What Causes TMJ Problems?

“The jaw bone itself is the most unique joint in the body,” says Dr. Richard Price, DMD and spokesperson for the American Dental Association. “It opens like a hinge, it goes side to side, it goes forward…. The jaw has to be operating at a balanced position, so the musculature pulls equally well on each side. If not, you can cause damage.”

While no single cause of TMD has been identified, the following factors have been found to trigger the condition:

OTHER CONDITIONS ASSOCIATED WITH TMJ DISORDERS

Long-term TMJ disorders can coexist with other painful conditions including “chronic fatigue syndrome, chronic headache, endometriosis, fibromyalgia, interstitial cystitis, irritable bowel syndrome, low back pain, sleep disorders, and vulvodynia,” says the TMJ Association Ltd.

  • Teeth grinding (grinding and clenching causes a lot of pressure and load on your TMJ, which can lead to problems).
  • Stress (when we’re stressed, we tend to tense our muscles, clench our teeth, and grind them, especially while sleeping).
  • Arthritis (an arthritic joint can lead to pain and other muscle difficulties).
  • Unnatural movement (especially of the disc located between the ball and socket of your TMJ).
  • Injury to the jaw, face or muscles of the head and neck (i.e. whiplash) can lead to TMD.
  • “Anything that puts undue stress on the jaw can cause a TMJ or TMD problem,” says Price.
  • Autoimmune diseases.
  • Infections.
  • Dental procedures.
  • Habitual gum chewing.

Common TMJ/TMD Symptoms

The following are the most common symptoms associated with TMJ disorders.

Pain Pain can be felt in the face, jaw, neck, and/or shoulders. It also can extend to the ear. It’s made worse by chewing, speaking, or opening the mouth wide.
Headaches Frequent headaches, especially upon waking.
Sounds “Clicking” or “popping” sounds emerge upon opening or closing of the mouth.
Problems chewing Pain and discomfort can turn chewing into a difficult and unpleasant task.
Swollen face Swelling on the side of the face that is experiencing pain.
Restricted movement The jaw gets “stuck” or “locked” in an open or closed position. Others have difficulty opening the mouth wide (e.g., yawning or chewing hard foods like crunchy bread).
Bite issues An uncomfortable bite is common with TMJ/TMD.
Tinnitus Ringing in the ears.

How to Treat TMD/TMJ Pain

TMJ problems can be treated similarly to a sore muscle or joint, says Dr. Price. “You can treat TMJ/TMD the same way you can treat a sore leg. You kind of limp on it,” he explains. “If you have TMD problems, what you want to do is be aware of it.”

Advice: Avoid opening wide, chew only soft foods, don’t chew gum, and apply a warm compress to the jaw, in front of your ear. You also could try taking medication such as ibuprofen to help reduce inflammation and pain. If you’re still suffering after a week, Dr. Price suggests a trip to the dentist.

Your dentist likely will prescribe an oral splint—a mouth or bite guard. It’s made of hard acrylic resin and is molded to your teeth to ensure a perfect fit over your upper or lower teeth.

HOW ARE TMJ DISORDERS DIAGNOSED?

Since multiple conditions (e.g., tooth decay, arthritis, sinus issues, or gum disease) can cause similar symptoms, it’s best to see a dentist for a true diagnosis. Your dentist will assess your health and dental history and conduct a physical exam of your mouth and jaw to determine the cause of your problems.

According to Dr. Price, a dentist will place his fingers on your back teeth and have you open and close your mouth, so he can hear and feel the jaw’s clicks, clanks, and other sounds. He “will try to re-create the spasm, the inequality of the muscles, in myriad ways,” says Dr. Price. Additional tests such as X-rays, an MRI or CT scan, may also be ordered to rule out other conditions.

While many find relief from wearing a mouth guard, there is some controversy over their effectiveness. Some believe wearing the splint will encourage clenching or grinding, thereby increasing symptoms.

A mandibular repositioning splint (MORA) is used in certain cases, especially where sleep apnea is a problem. This more invasive splint is designed to move the lower jaw (either forward or back) to alter its position. Research on this method is also inconclusive.

Acupuncture, physical therapy, muscle relaxants, ultrasound, injections of pain medication or anesthesia, transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS), radio wave, and laser therapy also have been deemed successful in certain cases of TMD.

Severe cases of TMD may require surgical intervention. Techniques such as arthrocentesis (a small, in-house procedure involving needles used to flush out and remove damaged tissue), arthroscopy (surgery done through a small incision using an arthroscope), or open-joint surgery are used to treat TMD.

Botox for TMD

Another more recent treatment method for TMD is Botox, which can help relax TMJ muscles and relieve symptoms.

According to a study of 26 patients with chronic pain from TMJ disorders, Botox injections significantly decreased the pain and improved jaw movements for as long as three months following treatment.

In addition, Botox may relieve jaw tension, headaches (especially those related to teeth grinding) and lockjaw. However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has yet to approve Botox for use in TMJ disorders. (To learn more about Botox’s health benefits, read our post What is Botox?)

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