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Temporomandibular Joint Disorders

You may have read articles in newspapers and magazines about "TMD" -- temporomandibular (jaw) disorders, also called "TMJ syndrome." Perhaps you have even felt pain sometimes in your jaw area, or maybe your dentist or physician has told you that you have TMD.

If you have questions about TMD, you are not alone. Researchers, too, are looking for answers to what causes TMD, what are the best treatments, and how can we prevent these disorders. The National Institute of Dental Research has written this pamphlet to share with you what we have learned about TMD.

TMD is not just one disorder, but a group of conditions, often painful, that affect the jaw joint (temporomandibular joint, or TMJ) and the muscles that control chewing. Although we don't know how many people actually have TMD, the disorders appear to affect about twice as many women as men.

The good news is that for most people, pain in the area of the jaw joint or muscles is not a signal that a serious problem is developing. Generally, discomfort from TMD is occasional and temporary, often occurring in cycles. The pain eventually goes away with little or no treatment. Only a small percentage of people with TMD pain develop significant, long-term symptoms

Symptoms of Temporomandibular Joint Disorders


TMJ syndrome has several possible physical causes:

  • Muscle tension. Muscle tightness in the temporomandibular joint usually results from overuse of muscles. This overuse in turn is often associated with psychological stress and clenching or grinding of the teeth (bruxism).
  • Injury. A direct blow to the jaw or the side of the head can result in bone fracture, soft tissue bruising, or a dislocation of the temporomandibular joint itself.
  • Arthritis. Both osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis can cause TMJ.
  • Internal derangement. Internal derangement is a condition in which the cartilage disk lies in front of its proper position. In most cases of internal derangement, the disc moves in and out of its correct location, making a clicking or popping noise as it moves. In a few cases, the disc is permanently out of position, and the patient's range of motion in the jaw is limited.
  • Hypermobility. Hypermobility is a condition in which the ligaments that hold the jaw in place are too loose and the jaw tends to slip out of its socket.
  • Birth abnormalities. These are the least frequent cause of TMJ but do occur in a minority of patients. In some cases, the top of the jawbone is too small; in others, the top of the jawbone outgrows the lower part.


  • Headache
  • Earache (the joint is located right in front of the ears and can easily be interpreted as ear pain by the patient)
  • Jaw pain or tenderness of the jaw
  • Dull, aching facial pain
  • Biting or chewing difficulty or discomfort
  • Clicking sound while chewing or opening the mouth
  • Grating sensation while chewing
  • Decreased ability to open or close the mouth

The symptoms of TMJ depend in part on its cause. The most common symptoms are facial pain in front of the ears; headaches; sore jaw muscles; a clicking sound when chewing; a grating sensation when opening and closing the mouth; and temporary locking of the jaw. Some patients also report a sensation of buzzing or ringing in the ears. Usually, the temporomandibular joint itself is not painful. Most cases of TMJ are seen in women between 20-50 years of age.


Diagnosis of Temporomandibular Joint Disorders

Dental examination and patient history

TMJ disorders are most frequently diagnosed by dentists. The dentist can often diagnose TMJ based on physical examination of the patient's face and jaw. The examination might include pressing on (palpating) the jaw muscles for soreness or asking the patient to open and close the jaw in order to check for misalignment of the teeth in the upper and lower jaw. This condition is called malocclusion. The dentist might also gently move the patient's jaw in order to check for loose ligaments.

Imaging studies

Imaging studies are not usually necessary to diagnose TMJ. In most cases, x rays and MRI scans of the temporomandibular joint will be normal. Consequently, these two tests are not commonly used to diagnose TMJ. If the dentist suspects that the patient has internal derangement of the disc, he or she can use a technique called arthrography to make the diagnosis. In an arthrogram, a special dye is injected into the joint, which is then x-rayed. Arthrography can be used to evaluate the movement of the jaw and the disc as well as size and shape, and to evaluate the effectiveness of treatment for TMJ.

Treatment of Temporomandibular Joint Disorders

In many cases, the cause of pain in the TMJ area is temporary and disappears without treatment. About 80% of patients with TMJ will improve in six months without medications or physical treatments.


Patients with TMJ can be given muscle relaxants if their symptoms are related to muscle tension. some patients may be given aspirin or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) for minor discomfort. If the TMJ is related to rheumatoid arthritis, it may be treated with corticosteroids, methotrexate (MTX, Rheumatrex) or gold sodium (Myochrysine).

Physical therapy and mechanical devices

Patients who have difficulty with bruxism are usually treated with splints. A plastic splint called a nightguard is given to the patient to place over the teeth before going to bed. Splints can also be used to treat some cases of internal derangement by holding the jaw forward and keeping the disc in place until the ligaments tighten. The splint is adjusted over a period of two to four months.

TMJ can also be treated with ultrasound, electromyographic biofeedback, stretching exercises, transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, stress management techniques, or friction massage.

Surgery for Temporomandibular Joint Disorders

Surgery is ordinarily used only to treat TMJ caused by birth deformities or certain forms of internal derangement caused by misshapen discs.

Prognosis  of Temporomandibular Joint Disorders

The prognosis for recovery from TMJ is excellent for almost all patients. Most patients do not need any form of long-term treatment. Surgical procedures to treat TMJ are quite successful. In the case of patients with TMJ caused by arthritis or infectious diseases, the progression of the arthritis or the success of eliminating infectious agents determines whether TMJ can be eliminated.


This web site is intended for your own informational purposes only. No person or entity associated with this web site purports to be engaging in the practice of medicine through this medium. The information you receive is not intended as a substitute for the advice of a physician or other health care professional. If you have an illness or medical problem, contact your health care provider.


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