What is TMJ? Understanding Causes and Symptoms of Jaw Pain

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TMJ disorders, referring to conditions that affect the temporomandibular joint (the joint connecting the jaw to the skull) and surrounding muscles, can have significant impacts on the musculoskeletal system.

The Temporomandibular Joint is one of the most complex joints in the body, allowing for movements required in chewing, speaking, and facial expressions.

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What You Need to Know about TMJ and Jaw Pain

Temporomandibular Joint (TMJ) disorders is an umbrella term for a group of conditions that affect the jaw joint and the muscles that control it.

The TMJ is a hinge joint that connects your lower jaw (mandible) to your skull on each side of your head. It allows you to move your jaw up and down, side to side, and forward and backward when you eat, talk, and yawn.

TMJ disorders can cause pain, tenderness, and difficulty chewing. They can also lead to problems with opening and closing your mouth.

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Common symptoms of jaw pain related to TMJ

  • Pain in the face and jaw is the most common symptom of TMJ. The pain can be felt on one or both sides of the face, as dull or sharp, and occasionally as throbbing or burning, though this is rare.
  • TMJ pain can often be the cause of headaches. Often mimicking Tension Type Headaches, Sinus Type Headaches and often make Migraines more frequent.
  • Jaw locking is a condition where the jaw gets stuck in an open or closed position. It can be very painful and make it difficult to eat, talk, or yawn.
  • Clicking, popping, or grinding sounds can occur when you open or close your mouth.When jaw noises are painful, seek immediate evaluation. Non-painful jaw noises typically don’t need treatment.
  • Tooth grinding or clenching is a habit that can put a lot of stress on the TMJ and can lead to pain and other symptoms.
  • Difficulty chewing or opening the mouth make it difficult to eat and can also be painful.

What Causes TMJ that lead to jaw pain

While the exact cause of TMJ disorders is still under investigation, several factors are known to contribute to jaw pain related to TMJ.


  • Chronic stress can lead to muscle tension throughout the body, including the jaw muscles. This clenching or tensing of the jaw muscles can put strain on the TMJ joint, causing pain and discomfort.
  • People with bruxism often grind their teeth unconsciously during sleep and may also clench during the day due to stress. This grinding or clenching puts excessive pressure on the TMJ and surrounding structures, leading to pain.


  • Misalignment of the teeth or jaw can cause uneven pressure on the TMJ joint during chewing or other jaw movements. This uneven pressure can irritate the joint and lead to pain.
  • Misalignment can be caused by factors such as genetics, missing teeth, jaw development or trauma to the jaw.


  • Like any other joint in the body, the TMJ can be affected by arthritis. Osteoarthritis, the most common form of arthritis, can cause inflammation, degeneration of the joint cartilage, and pain in the TMJ.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease, can also affect the TMJ, causing pain, swelling, and stiffness.


  • Macro Trauma
    A direct blow or impact to the jaw can harm the TMJ joint, ligaments, or surrounding muscles, resulting in pain, swelling, and limited jaw movement.
  • Injuries like whiplash, where the head is jerked forcefully back and forth, can also strain the TMJ joint and cause jaw pain.
  • Micro Trauman
    The constant repetitive forces from clenching/grinding can result in muscle and joint strain, leading to pain.

It’s important to note that these factors can often work together. For instance, stress can worsen pain caused by misalignment or injury. Consulting a doctor or dentist can help pinpoint the specific causes contributing to your TMJ-related jaw pain.

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Diagnosing TMJ Disorders: A Step Towards Relief Jaw Pain

If you are experiencing persistent jaw pain, it is important to see a doctor or dentist for a professional evaluation to identify the cause of your pain and develop an appropriate treatment plan.


Diagnosing TMJ disorders typically involves these main steps

  • Medical history and physical examination, followed by imaging tests if necessary.
  • During the medical history, a doctor or dentist will inquire about past injuries, dental work, and any medical conditions that can impact or cause pain, such as sleep disorders, autoimmune disease, or chronic pain. While X-rays may sometimes be used to rule out other causes of jaw pain, more detailed imaging tests like MRI or CT scans might be employed for a closer look at the TMJ joint and surrounding structures when needed.
  • A physical examination involves assessing jaw joints, movement limitations, bite, and joint sounds. Furthermore, the muscles of the head, neck, and shoulders are assessed, as well as posture.

The Importance of Professional Evaluation for Causes and Symptoms of Jaw Pain

Self-diagnosing TMJ disorders can be difficult, and there are many other conditions that can cause similar symptoms. A professional evaluation is important to

  • Identify the specific cause of your jaw pain
    TMJ disorders can have a variety of causes, and a professional can help identify the specific cause of your pain so that you can receive the most appropriate treatment.It is important to identify if the pain is from the joints, jaw muscles, or if it is caused by the neck/shoulder muscles. Sometimes, the pain can be caused by multiple issues simultaneously.
  • Rule out other possible causes of jaw pain
    There are many other conditions that can cause jaw pain, such as sinus infections, ear infections, and dental problems. A professional evaluation can help rule out these other conditions.
  • Develop an appropriate treatment plan
    The best treatment for TMJ disorders will vary depending on the underlying cause and severity of your symptoms. A professional can develop a treatment plan that is right for you.

While some TMJ symptoms may improve on their own with self-care measures like relaxation techniques and pain medication, if you are experiencing persistent jaw pain, it is important to see a doctor or dentist to get a professional evaluation. Early diagnosis and treatment can help prevent further complications and improve your quality of life.

Effective Treatment Options for Persistent Jaw Pain

Persistent jaw pain caused by TMJ disorders can be frustrating and significantly impact your daily life. When managing persistent jaw pain, the focus is often on a multi-disciplinary approach that combines non-invasive methods for pain management with therapies that address the underlying cause.

Non-invasive Treatments

  • Self-care techniques
    These are often the first line of defence in managing TMJ pain. Practices like applying moist heat or ice packs to the jaw, practising relaxation techniques to manage stress, and eating soft foods to avoid straining the jaw can provide significant relief.
  • Pain medication
    Over-the-counter pain relievers like acetaminophen (Paracetamol) or ibuprofen (Nurofen) can help manage pain and inflammation.
  • Physical therapy (Chiropractor / Osteopath / Physiotherapist)
    Physical therapy can help treat jaw, neck, posture, gait dysfunction which leads to less pain. A physical therapist can teach you specific exercises to stretch and strengthen the muscles around your jaw joint, or to increase jaw movement, thus reducing pain.
  • Neuromuscular orthotics
    Custom made Neuromuscular orthotics are very different in function to typical splints, mouth guards or bite plates. Orthotics allow the muscles to relax and maintain ideal joint function, therefore helping eliminate pain, clicking and jaw locking. There are many different designs of orthotics and one type does not work for all situations.
  • Biofeedback
    This technique uses electronic devices to help you become more aware of muscle tension and teaches you relaxation techniques to reduce tension in the jaw muscles.
  • Lifestyle modifications
    Identifying and avoiding triggers such as excessive gum chewing, stress, and certain hard foods can significantly reduce TMJ pain.

Invasive Treatments

  • Injections
    Corticosteroid injections can be used to reduce inflammation in the TMJ joint, providing temporary pain relief.

    When the pain is more from the muscles rather than the jaw joints, botox injections may be used to relax the muscles around the jaw joint, which reduces the muscular pain.
  • Arthrocentesis
    This procedure involves flushing the TMJ to remove fluid or debris that may be causing irritation and pain.
  • Surgery
    Surgery is typically considered a last resort for TMJ disorders that have not responded to other treatments. There are various surgical procedures available depending on the specific problem with the TMJ joint.


It’s important to note that the best course of treatment will vary depending on the individual and the specific cause of their TMJ disorder.

Consulting with a healthcare professional experienced in TMJ disorders allows for a proper diagnosis and the development of a personalised treatment plan to effectively manage persistent jaw pain.

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Remember, these are general recommendations. It’s important to consult with your doctor or dentist to develop a personalised plan that addresses the specific cause of your TMJ symptoms. By incorporating these lifestyle changes and self-care measures into your routine, you can effectively manage your TMJ symptoms and experience significant pain relief.