It is pretty common as a dentist to hear from our patients "Now doc, I have TMJ, especially when I wake up in the morning." I hear this all the time.
There are many reasons why people have discomfort or just sounds coming from their jaw joint. But first, a little anatomy lesson. The joint that connects the lower jaw, or mandible, to the head is called the temporomandibular joint, or TMJ. This joint is what allows our jaw to both rotate and translate making it possible to talk and chew and do all the necessary things our mouths do. This joint is found directly in front of the ear and if you put your fingers on it and open you can feel it in motion. This joint consists of four basic parts. First are the bones: the mandiblular connector, or condyle, and the port in the head where this condyle sits, or fossa. Now if we just had this component we would have bone rubbing on bone and that would not be good. Much like if you have ever tried to slide something heavy like a refrigerator on a bare floor, it's difficult and often leaves scratches and dings in the floor. However, if you put a towel under this heavy object and push, it slides much easier and no harm is done to the floor. In the same way, the second component of the TMJ, a disc sits between the condyle and the fossa so that we can move our jaw easily up and down with little friction and no pain. The third component of the joint are the tendons that hold everything tightly in place like bungee cords so that everything functions in harmony. The final component of the joint are muscles that actually move the joint, up and down and from side to side. These four components make up your TMJ, everyone has two of them, one on each side of your head.
While common, especially in women, not everyone has TMD. TMD, or Temporomandibular disorder, is when one or several of these four major components are not working in harmony. Common symptoms for this are popping, clicking, limited opening, chronic jaw fatigue, locking open or closed, feeling a sudden change in bite, and discomfort or pain to varying degrees. Understanding which component is out of harmony isn't always easy and should be evaluated by a dentist. Mild symptoms like occasionally clicking may not need any treatment at all, but symptoms that are getting worse and interrupting with daily tasks of biting, talking, chewing, or inhibiting general quality of life should get seen by a trained professional.
- BLAKE C. SESSIONS, DMD