TMJ and TMD:
Natural Options for Treating and
Healing This Common Source of Jaw Pain
Does this sound familiar?
Side effects of TMD can include debilitating headaches, along with severe pain in areas like the neck and back.
“My jaws are so sore and I have sharp pains running through the joints. I feel a clicking, popping and a grinding sensation anytime I move my jaw to talk or eat. Even my ears have a ringing and buzzing in them. I’m constantly fighting stiffness and pain in my neck and shoulders, plus my hands feel numbness in them. I can’t sleep from all the pain I’m experiencing, and I feel like I’m falling into a depression. What is wrong with me?”
If you are experiencing symptoms like the ones above, you may have temporomandibular joint dysfunction (TMJ/TMD). The disorder was first discovered in 1934 by an otolaryngologist named J.B. Costen, and currently estimates suggest that anywhere from 60 million to over 175 million Americans may suffer from TMD – so if you’re one of them, you’re not alone!
In fact, according to John D. Laughlin III, president of the Holistic Dental Association, 70 to 80 percent of the United States population may have some form of TMD!
What Exactly is TMJ?
Your temporomandibular joint is made up of your jawbone, or the mandible, and your temporal bone, or your temples. The temporomandibular joint (TMJ) and its surrounding muscles connect your lower jaw to your skull and allow you to move your jaw.
Your teeth, temporomandibular joints and muscles all work together to provide good alignment and normal function of the jaw itself. If a part of this group becomes dysfunctional, painful conditions like TMD can develop. You also have a soft disk structure between the temporal bones and the rounded end of your mandible that is supposed to absorb the shock caused to the temporomandibular joint when you talk or chew. TMD is often extremely painful because when the temporomandibular joint is out of alignment, it can cause problems throughout your entire body. It may simply be a minor inconvenience – or it can be a problem that is life altering.
What Causes TMJ/TMD?
Unfortunately, most cases of TMD develop for unknown reasons. This only adds to the difficulty of diagnosis and treatment. Amazingly, it is now known that TMJ problems can begin during the birth process. The pressure applied to facial bones during birth can place the TMJ out of alignment. Trauma, such as a severe blow to the jaw, can also cause severe disruption to your TMJ.
According to statistics in the Journal of the American Dental Association, 44 percent to 99 percent of all TMD cases were caused by some kind of trauma. When the bone or disc of the TMJ becomes injured, it prevents your jaw from opening and closing in a smooth motion. Soon after an injury, you may start to notice popping or grinding of the TMJ, locking of your jaw completely or the signs of arthritis may develop. Some people may even experience problems with the TMJ disk slipping out of position in their sleep.
Imagine waking up in the morning and being unable to open your mouth more than a few tiny millimeters!
Additional causes of TMD may be from a bite that is uneven (malocclusion), poor nutrition, chewing gum excessively, mental and physical stress, clenching your teeth, grinding your teeth while sleeping or chewing on one side of your mouth. Dentists, oral surgeons, physicians, natural healers, massage therapists, chiropractors, physical therapists, neurologists, and psychiatrists each have their own techniques for treatment of TMJ.
So if you think you are suffering from TMD, what are your treatment options?
According to the American Dental Association, the majority of TMJ disorders are caused by problems with the jaw muscle, and most are due to muscle spasms. Only a small number of people have TMJ disorders that stem from problems within the jaw itself. This includes damaged ligaments, osteoarthritis, misalignment and other joint conditions. When your dentist becomes concerned about a possible internal joint issue, they will refer you to have an MRI or a CAT scan of your TMJ.
Treatment for TMJ/TMD
With a mild form of TMD, you might feel a sharp pain in your jaw while crunching down on hard foods. When TMD is severe, you can no longer eat or talk without feeling unbearable pain. It can be absolutely debilitating. Unfortunately, many people with TMD spend years trying to find the successful treatment from different professionals.
A good deal of the time, the medical professional offers medication to treat the symptoms of TMD. The problem with this is that medication only treats some of the symptoms, not the TMD itself. The ultimate goal of treatment should be to permanently rid you of the constant aches and pains caused by TMD, allowing you to live a normal and healthy life again, and this requires assessing and healing the underlying cause.
Once you have been officially diagnosed with TMD, your dentist will discuss the available treatment options with you depending on your unique circumstances. Some of the most successful treatments for TMD are adjusting your bite (occlusion), orthotic therapy, orthodontic treatment and restoring your damaged or misaligned teeth to their intended positions. No matter the treatment used, each will strive to relieve the muscle pain and spasms, stabilize your bite and relieve problems long-term.
Your dentist is usually the first professional to see for TMJ problems. Once you are in the dental office, you will be asked about symptoms and pain levels, a thorough medical and dental history will be taken and your head, neck, teeth and jawbones will be examined.
Treating TMD Without Surgery
TMD is often treated using certain types of oral medications, including pain medications and corticosteroids, but these only cover up symptoms. Drug-free options are available to help heal the underlying causes of TMD pain.
Luckily, most cases of TMD do not require surgery. When trying these non-surgical methods, however, you must remember that they do not cure TMD, but simply relieve pain and improve the TMJ function by covering up the symptoms. Many also come with risks and side effects of their own. Your dentist may also prescribe medications or make a night guard to prevent you from grinding your teeth at night. Some frequently used medications for TMD are:
- Pain Medications: If over-the-counter pain medication is not strong enough to relieve your TMD pain, your dentist may prescribe pain medications to take at home. These medications may be Tylenol 3, Vicodin or Xodol, and should be used sparingly, as serious side effects can occur.
- Muscle Relaxers: These are used in an effort to relieve pain and muscle tightness or spasms.
- Steroids: If you have severe inflammation of the TMJ, corticosteroids can be injected directly into the space of your joints to relieve that pain and swelling.
If you’d rather treat TMD without drugs, ask your dentist about these non-drug options:
- Night Guards: If your dentist discovers that you grind your teeth while sleeping, you would probably benefit from a night guard device. This is simply a mold of your teeth that is made into a type of tray that you slip over your teeth at night. It prevents your teeth from touching and you are unable to grind them during your sleep, possibly improving and preventing TMJ damage.
- Behavioral Therapy: If your TMD is caused by or aggravated by stress and anxiety, your dentist may refer you to a psychotherapist who specializes in cognitive behavior therapy. This type of treatment will help you to learn techniques that promote relaxation and reduce stress.
Surgical Treatment for TMD is Rare
Once your dentist evaluates you, he or she may choose to refer you to an oral surgeon. It is rare for TMD to require surgical intervention, and only those people with true joint disorders may benefit from the procedure. The two most common joint disorders are internal derangement, which is from the disc of the jaw joint slipping out of alignment, and degenerative joint disease.
A total replacement of the TMJ may also be performed on those people who have systemic joint disorders, like rheumatoid arthritis or cancer. However, the National Institute off Dental and Craniofacial Research cautions people that surgery to replace or repair a TMJ is controversial, irreversible and should be avoided if at all possible.
Comparing Non-Surgical and Surgical Treatments
Even the experts agree that trying non-surgical treatments is the best route to take for TMD treatment. Many years ago, too many people were sent into surgery right after diagnosis. Research conducted found that patients with a jaw locking from a permanently displaced disc did just as well with non-surgical treatment versus surgical treatment. In the study, 106 people were randomly assigned to receive medical treatment or surgical treatment. Only five percent of the non-surgical group ever needed to get surgery to treat their TMD. Plus, the surgical group really did not fare better than the non-surgical group over a five-year period.
Alternative Therapy Options
As medical science continues to uncover new treatment options for TMD, many people are also turning to alternative and home remedies for help. Many of these options work wonders for people suffering from TMD pain. Some of the best alternative therapies are:
- Deep Breathing: To reduce stress, you can practice deep breathing techniques. This allows you to slow your breathing and heart rate as you concentrate on relaxation. Since stress plays a major role in TMD, breathing exercises and stress reduction techniques can be very valuable in treating TMD.
- Meditation: As with deep breathing exercises, meditation is a way to calm your mind and your body. You sit quietly and focus on clearing your mind during meditation. This causes your entire body to enter a very restful state and reduces the stress response. As a result, you do not clench your teeth or experrience pain due to muscle tightness of the TMJ.
- TENS Units: A TENS unit uses electrical signals to massage the muscles of your jaw. It works to loosen them and allows them to work better. After using the TENS unit, you should notice that your jaw does a lot better when opening, closing and chewing. Your muscles feel more fluid and free moving.