It can range from a vague, achy feeling all over your head, neck and shoulders to severe pain that you would swear was a migraine. The truth is, your painful symptoms could very likely be caused by TMJ. And it can range in intensity from a minor irritation to enough pain to almost put you down for the count and make every day living difficult.
TMJ stands for Temporo Mandibular Joint and by itself is not a problem because everyone has two of them. It’s the joint where the lower movable jaw bone, or mandible, is attached to the skull with a sling of muscles, ligament and a capsular cartilage. It’s when the joint becomes dysfuntional that issues arise and in fact the condition has become known as TMD or Temporo Mandubular Dysfunction Syndrome. And more recently many medical and dental professionals are referring to this broad group of painful symptoms as MPDS – MyoFascial Pain and Dysfunction Syndrome.
The reason is, that it is being found more often that the pain is not originating from the joint. The joint was the original suspect because many times when people with painful symptoms were being examined it was noticed that the jaw joint was making a clicking, popping or grating sound. So where there’s smoke there’s gotta be fire, right? Wrong! When healthy people without symptoms were examined their TM Joints made the same sounds in about the same proportion as those individuals with pain. So it isn’t always the joint.
Another thing that is being touted as a cause of the symptoms is an improper bite, or malocclusion, causing stress on the TM joint leading to the symptoms. And while it is true that a poor bite can cause the ligaments surrounding the joint to stretch or be stressed this may not be the cause. There are many instances of people who have no teeth, and do not wear their dentures without any history of pain. The same can be said of people with many missing teeth or severely misaligned jaws.
So if it’s not the joint and it’s not the bite, then what can be causing all of this discomfort? Quite simply, muscle spasms. And the muscle spasms are the result of either physical or psychological stress. There is a vast complex of nerves throughout the head and spasms can cause referred pain anywhere along these nerve branches.
The end result is very painful situation but the good news is there may be some very easy ways to get relief and break the cycle of pain. The key to relief lies in finding the origin of your pain. As I mentioned earlier the pain can be caused by stressors, either physical or psychological so let’s go about relieving some of these:
- First, and perhaps the simplest key, is to make sure you are adequately hydrated. Even though water consumption has increased very few people drink a full 8 glasses of water a day. And many experts feel that each soft drink, coffee or alcoholic beverage cancels out an equal amount of water. How does dehydration lead to the facial pain associated with TMJ? Well the proper amount of water helps flush out toxins, lactic acid and the byproducts of muscle activity. A buildup of these toxins in the facial muscles can cause fatigued muscles to spasm or not allow them to relax. So, drink up!
- Many sufferers report increased discomfort when they wake up in the morning that ends up leading to a day long head ache or neck ache. If the pain is more severe on one side of the face or neck it may be caused by your sleep position or habits. If you sleep on your side or rest your jaw on a hand laid on your pillow while you are asleep the muscles on that side of your face will be stretched. The joint on the opposite side of your face will be displaced into the socket in a painful manner. So the muscles on the side next to the pillow will attempt to contract to return to their “rest length” and relieve the pain on the socket on the opposite side. Many times, just becoming aware of this problem and changing your sleep position will relieve the symptoms.
- If you wake up with pain on both sides of your head or face or if your teeth feel sore or loose, you are probably clenching or bruxing while you are asleep. Many dentists will prescribe a bite guard for this but this really only serves to protect the teeth and give a cushion for the joint. The muscle spasms remain.
- If you take stress to bed with you it will get worked out with nocturnal clenching. The key here is to find something that relieves and relaxes you before you go to sleep. A hot bath, herbal tea or a glass of wine are all helpful to start the relaxation process. Take your worry hat off 30 minutes before the time you plan on going to bed and make a vow to think only about enjoyable past experiences.
- Your facial muscle spasms have a focus, locate the focus and start knocking out the pain. TMJ pain is not spread uniformly across the affected area of the head and neck. Some areas will be more painful than others and one spot will be the most painful of all. To find the focal point, start pressing along the painful areas of your face. Start at the lowest area of pain and work your way towards the top of your head. One area will feel extremely tender to your touch – this is the focal point. You can concentrate your relief effort on this spot and the rest of the pain will melt away. Start off by placing a warm compress on the area for about 20 minutes, and then massage the area with your thumb. Apply maximum pressure and move in a circular motion. Then finish off with something like Ben Gay or Icy Hot. Break the muscle spasm in the focal point and the rest of the muscles will relax.
And finally, just a point of common sense. The more you exercise and use the facial muscles during your daily activities, the more likely they are to go into spasm while you are sleeping and develop more intense symptoms. So if you have ever experienced discomfort, then gum chewing is definitely a no-no. And even if you haven’t, don’t leave a piece of gum in your mouth longer than 20 minutes. Most foods eaten in moderation will not cause an issue, but you will need to avoid chewing ice, hard candies and if crusts cause a problem, they will need to be cut off. Also, tongue and lip jewelry lead to para-functional habits that will lead to spasms of the muscles in the head and neck. So those will need to come out.
If you need to find out more information to relieve the pain from your TMJ symptoms this is an excellent resource. It is also very important to remember, if you notice no improvement in your symptoms over several weeks time you will need to seek out professional advice.
You will not wake up one morning and be entirely pain free but you should notice slight improvement each day. These common sense ideas should relieve your TMJ symptoms over time, and being pain-free will be great!