TMJ refers to the tempromandibular joints, which are the joints of the jaw that connect the lower jaw bone (mandible) to the skull. These joints allow us to open and close our mouths, chew our food, and speak to one another (or ourselves). A TMJ disorder is any condition which interferes with these actions. Teeth grinding, teeth and jaw clenching, and locked jaw are some examples of conditions which relate to TMJ disorders.
TMJ disorders are sometimes difficult to diagnose, as there are many different causes for these conditions. TMJ disorders are most commonly caused by muscle tension in the jaw, perhaps due to increased stress and anxiety, jaw clenching, teeth grinding, or excessive chewing. Some other habits may be linked to TMJ disorders, such as consistently sleeping on one side of the jaw, chewing a lot of gum, or overextension of the jaw.
Other causes of TMJ disorders may be misaligned jaw joints or teeth, either due to structural problems with the jaw or teeth (such as a birth defect or scar tissue), or due to an injury to the jaw or surrounding areas. Other conditions such as arthritis may also lead to TMJ disorders.
If left untreated, these disorders can lead to headaches, earaches, joint and muscle pain (especially in the face, neck, and shoulders), loss of sleep, locked jaw, difficulty opening and closing the mouth, a clicking sound in the jaw, and/or limited movement of the head and neck.
Many people experience some of these problems and, most of the time, minor problems with the TMJ will correct themselves over time. They may reappear down the road, but the condition will not normally get any worse. However, some people suffer chronically from TMJ disorders, and must receive some type of treatment to deal with the pain and discomfort they may experience.
One of the best treatment options for teeth grinding, clenching, and other TMJ disorders are the use of dental mouth guards or splints. These custom-made guards are provided by your dentist and are used to relieve tension on the jaw during sleep. They help prevent teeth grinding and, if used regularly, can help curtail these nocturnal habits. Two common types of these guards are full upper mouth guards, which fit over all of the upper teeth, or NTIs, which are worn around only the top front teeth and have a high success rate stopping clenching.
Other methods to help treat TMJ disorders are available, and the best method really depends on the exact cause/s of the disorder. If high stress or anxiety levels are to blame, then stress management techniques may be the best line of defense. If the problem is due to structural problems with the teeth or jaw, then dental adjustments may bring these problems to an end. No matter what the cause, applying soothing heat to the area is often helpful, as well. Consult your dentist to find out what steps can be taken to help treat any TMJ disorders you may be suffering from.
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