TMJ stands for temporomandibular joint disorder, a chronic condition that occurs when the jaw joints and the cushioning discs that separate the joint structures become irritated and inflamed. TMJ often occurs as a result of poor alignment between the upper and lower teeth or other alignment issues, overcrowding, missing teeth, and other problems that affect the bite balance and bite mechanics (the way we bite and chew). All these issues place an uneven and excessive strain on the jaw joints, resulting in irritation, pain, and swelling in the joint.
TMJ causes persistent jaw pain, stiffness, and dysfunction in the jaw as well as chronic headaches and, often, clicking or popping noises when chewing or yawning. Many patients also experience a “locking” sensation when the mouth is opened wide. Because TMJ usually involves uneven stresses in the jaw joints, it's often associated with chronic teeth grinding and excessive tooth wear that increases the risks of decay and tooth loss. Often, patients with chronic headaches and jaw pain are surprised to learn their symptoms can be relieved with orthodontic treatment to realign their teeth and normalize their bite mechanics.
An orthodontist treats TMJ by realigning the teeth so the forces on the jaw joints are normalized and upper and lower teeth meet the way they're supposed to. As the strain on jaw joints is relieved, symptoms associated with TMJ will resolve. Because different factors can contribute to TMJ and its symptoms, each treatment plan is carefully designed and based on the patient's individual needs for superior outcomes.
The best way to know if symptoms like headaches, jaw pain, clicking noises or other issues are caused by TMJ is to have an evaluation to look for other signs of uneven tooth wear or jaw joint inflammation. During the evaluation, hands-on techniques, visual examination, and digital imaging may all be used to determine if TMJ is present.