The temporomandibular joint, located just in front of the ears, is the joint connecting your lower jaw with the temporal bone. Jaw pain in this joint is common. Untreated pain in this joint can lead to symptoms of osteoarthritis of the jaw.
The temporomandibular joint (TMJ) can be located by placing your fingers just in front of your ears and opening and closing your mouth. This joint is one of the most frequently used joints in the entire body and is integral in the everyday functions of chewing, biting, talking and yawning. This joint is also a point that tends to suffer from stress through teeth clenching and grinding. Pain in the jaw and surrounding tissues is sometimes referred to as TMJ syndrome.
The cartilage on the TMJ is not as strong as the cartilage is in other joints of the body. Wear and tear on the cartilage of the TMJ can lead to pain in the joint. Additionally, clenching your jaw muscles together increases the pressure on the TMJ. This pressure leads to a decrease in the amount of synovial fluid that can flow within the joint space, thus becoming harmful to the joint and surrounding tissues.
It is reported that over 11 million people suffer from temporomandibular joint pain, with over half of these people being women between the ages of 20 and 40. These symptoms can include:
- Pain in the jaw and surrounding muscles
- A grating sensation, called crepitus, in the TMJ when opening and closing the mouth
- Painful clicking or popping in the jaw when opening and closing the mouth
- Pain radiating from the jaw to the neck, head and arms
- Stiffness of the neck
- Misalignment of the upper and lower teeth
- Limited movement in the jaw
In severe cases, the top of the jaw bone will flatten out which can cause the jaw to shift and limit how wide the sufferer can open their mouth.
Most symptoms will subside after a few months. However, jaw pain that persists and is left untreated can lead to osteoarthritis in this joint. Common treatments for jaw pain include:
- Rest the jaw as much as possible
- Massage for muscle tightness
- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug regimen
- Short term use of muscle relaxers
- Avoiding extreme jaw movements like gum chewing, yawning and singing
- Eating soft foods
- Applying heat or ice packs
- Use of a splint or bite plate
A splint or bite piece is an oral appliance that fits over the upper or the lower teeth. This appliance can help to prevent clenching and teeth grinding, easing the muscle tension and other symptoms of osteoarthritis of the jaw.
In some cases of osteoarthritis, a doctor may prescribe physical therapy treatment. Physical therapy can aide in strengthening the temporomandibular joint and increasing the blood flow and oxygen to the jaw area.