The Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) is comprised of the lower jaw (mandible) and the skull (temporal bone). You can feel this joint if you place your fingers gently inside your ears and open and close your mouth. It can also be felt by putting your fingers on your face just in front of your ears. To cushion the joint, a small disc sits between the mandible and temporal bone. This acts to provides some shock absorption when we do activities such as chewing.
Pain is the result of something goes wrong with this joint, the disc, or the muscles of the TMJ. This pain can be felt in the jaw, face or ears. This often leads to difficultly opening the mouth, popping and clicking in the joint and pain when biting into food.
Why does this happen?
TMJ disorders are caused by many things. It may be following an event of trauma to the face, such as being hit with a hockey stick. Or it can result from frequent “micro-trauma”. This type of trauma can occur from overusing the joint, and is mostly seen in people who clench, or grind their teeth at night. Additionally, people often experience pain following extensive dental work due to the jaw being stretched open for too long.
However, not all causes of TMJ pain are due to trauma. The jaw joint is like any other in our body and is also affected by conditions such as rheumatoid (RA) and osteoarthritis (OA). The wearing down of the joint with OA results in damage to the joint and causes pain. Similarly, with RA, swelling in the joint breaks down the jaw bone and cartilage, causing some deformity and resultant pain.
How long will this last for?
The extent and cause of damage to this joint usually determines how long the pain and discomfort will last. In an acute case following trauma hat did not involve any structural changes, symptoms may last for a few days or weeks. Once the selling has gone down, pain tends to be relieved. However, if the problem is more chronic, it is necessary to be treated by a medical professional as it can last for months, or years without treatment.
What happens during Treatment?
During Physical Therapy, treatments are tailored to improve the mobility of your jaw, and to reduce pain. Soft tissue massages to reduce tightness in the muscles of the jaw and neck help relive some of this tension. Some joint distractions and manipulations may be provided to the jaw to increase range of motion. Behaviors and bad habits contributing to the pain will be addressed to improve overall management of the condition. In addition, exercises to stretch tight muscles, strengthen weak muscles and exercises to promote good posture will be provided.