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Jaw joint problems


Expert reviewer Dr Steve Preddy, Bupa UK Dental Clinical Director
Next review due March 2019

Jaw joint problems (also known as jaw joint dysfunction) is a group of conditions that can cause pain in your jaw. They can affect how well your jaw joint works, and the muscles that control how you move it. Around one out of six people in the UK have jaw joint problems and women get them more often than men. You can get problems with your jaw at any age, but most people have them when they’re between 20 and 50.

An image showing the jaw joint

About jaw joint problems

Jaw joint problems are also known as temporomandibular disorders (TMD). You might hear it called myofascial pain disorder too.

The medical name for your jaw joint is the temporomandibular joint. It allows your jaw bone (mandible) to move from side to side, backwards and forwards, and to open and close your mouth.

Your jaw joint is one of the most complicated joints in your body, and has several muscles and ligaments which allow different movements.

Symptoms of jaw joint problems

Your symptoms may include:

  • pain, probably around your jaw, but it may also be around your cheek, ear and neck
  • restricted movement, which makes it difficult to do things like chew your food, and you might feel like you have a locked jaw
  • noises, such as popping, grating and clicking sounds, when you move your jaw
  • headaches
  • pain in your neck and/or shoulders
  • your bite (when you put your teeth together) not feeling right

You might find your symptoms are worse when you chew, or if you’re feeling stressed.

You may be able to manage these symptoms at home and they often get better within a few months. But if you’re worried about the pain or other symptoms, go and see your dentist to see if treatment could help you.

Diagnosis of jaw joint problems

Your dentist will ask about your symptoms and examine you, and will ask you about your medical history.

Your dentist may examine your head, neck, face and jaw to see if you have any tenderness. They may ask you to move your jaw in all directions too. This can help your dentist see how well you can move your jaw and if it’s painful or makes clicking noises when you move it.

Because the jaw joint is so complicated, there are lots of possible causes of jaw problems. So it can be difficult to work out what’s causing your symptoms. There’s no one test that can diagnose jaw joint problems. Your dentist might refer you to have a scan such as an X-ray, computed tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan, or ultrasound.

Treatment of jaw joint problems

Your treatment will depend on what’s causing your jaw joint problems. See ‘Causes of jaw joint problems’ to learn more about possible reasons for it. Jaw joint problems will often get better within a few months and don’t usually cause any complications.

Self-help

Here are some tips to rest your jaw joint, which may help to relieve your symptoms.

  • Eat soft foods so you don’t have to chew food for too long.
  • Don’t yawn widely, sing, chew gum or bite your nails.
  • Take steps to stop any habits, such as clenching your jaw or grinding your teeth.
  • Massage the muscles around your jaw.
  • Put a heat pad, such as a hot water bottle (filled with warm, not boiling, water) wrapped in a cloth or towel on your jaw.
  • Identify anything stressful and take steps to manage this. You might find relaxation techniques helpful. See Related information for more tips on relaxing.

Medicines

You may find over-the-counter painkillers, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen, help to ease your pain. There are some other medicines your dentist might suggest if you’re in a lot of pain. You might need to see your GP to get a prescription for some of these.

See our ‘Are there any medicines that I can take to help with my jaw joint problems?’ FAQ for more information.

Non-surgical treatment

If your dentist thinks you’re clenching your jaw or grinding your teeth when you’re asleep, they may suggest you wear a bite guard (bite splint). This is a cover made from plastic that fits over your upper or lower teeth and stops them coming into contact with each other. There isn’t any conclusive evidence about how well bite guards work, but people often find them helpful.

Other treatments that may be helpful include physiotherapy. See 'Does physiotherapy work for jaw joint problems?' for more information.

Self-help measures, medicines and non-surgical treatments will probably ease your discomfort and relieve your symptoms. Most jaw joint problems don’t last long and don’t get worse. But if your symptoms last for longer than four to six weeks, your dentist may refer you to see a specialist. This could be an oral surgeon or a specialist jaw joint dentist.

Surgery

Usually, you’ll only be offered surgery if you’ve tried other treatments but they haven’t worked – only a small number of people have surgery. Operations to treat jaw joint problems can involve opening your jaw joint and operating on the bones, cartilages and ligaments. Another option is to replace your jaw joint with an artificial (prosthetic) one.

It’s important to discuss the risks and benefits of surgery with your oral surgeon to see if it’s a good option for you.

Complementary therapies

Some people try acupuncture to help relieve the symptoms of jaw joint problems. This may be useful in relieving jaw joint pain, but there isn’t much evidence so far that it works.

Causes of jaw joint problems

The exact cause of jaw joint problems isn’t always fully understood. Things that might possibly cause these problems include the following.

  • Disc displacement. This is when what’s called the articular disc (a thin disc within your jaw joint) is in the wrong position. It can happen if you dislocate your jaw, or injure it. You might hear noises when you move your mouth, such as clicking, grating or popping.
  • Osteoarthritis. This is more common in your knees, hips and joints of your hand but it can affect your jaw joint too and wear it down.
  • If you injure your jaw during dental treatment, or knock it, or overstretch when yawning, it can trigger jaw joint problems.
  • Clenching your jaw or grinding your teeth (bruxism) may cause jaw joint problems. But lots of people with jaw joint problems don’t grind their teeth, and many people who do grind their teeth don’t have jaw joint problems. The crucial thing is the symptoms, not the grinding of teeth.

It’s possible that you may have more than one of these at the same time.

Frequently asked questions

  • Yes, there are some medicines that can help.

    Painkillers that you can buy over the counter, such as paracetamol or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, may help to relieve your pain.

    Medicines to help treat depression, known as antidepressants, may also be helpful to relieve pain. They can relax the muscles of your jaw joint. You might need to see your GP to get a prescription for some of these. Your doctor or dentist will prescribe you a lower dose than what’s usually needed to treat depression.

    If you're in a lot of pain, your dentist may prescribe you a muscle-relaxing medicine to help reduce the tightness and pain in your jaw. They prescribe you a drug called diazepam, for example, which relaxes your muscles and can also reduce anxiety. Your dentist will usually only prescribe this if you're in a lot of pain, and you can only take it for a short time. This is because it can be addictive if you take it for longer periods.

  • There’s some evidence that physiotherapy may help to improve the symptoms of jaw joint problems for some people.

    Some research has suggested that exercises, manual therapies (such as massage and manipulation), electrotherapy, and relaxation training may help to treat jaw joint problems. And a combination of some of these treatments may work too. But more research needs to be done to know for sure.

  • Some jaw joint problems can lead to you getting arthritis in your jaw joints but this is rare.

    Arthritis causes inflammation (swelling) of your joints. There are different types of arthritis, including osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Both of these can affect your jaw joint, as can infectious and traumatic arthritis.

    If you have jaw joint pain for long, it may cause secondary degenerative arthritis but this isn’t common. Secondary degenerative arthritis means your arthritis is a result of another condition. If you have arthritis in your jaw, you may have pain on one side of your jaw and find it difficult to open your mouth. Your symptoms may repeatedly get worse and then better.

    Your dentist may refer you for an X-ray to diagnose if you have arthritis in your jaw. Treatment is generally the same as for jaw joint problems.


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Related information


    • Temporomandibular joint syndrome. BMJ Best Practice. www.bestpractice.bmj.com, published 6 August 2014
    • TMJ disorders. NICE Clinical Knowledge Summaries. cks.nice.org.uk, published April 2015
    • Temporomandibular joint syndrome. Medscape. www.emedicine.medscape.com, published 24 March 2015
    • Ear, nose, and throat. Oxford handbook of general practice (online). Oxford Medicine Online. www.oxfordmedicine.com, published April 2014
    • Temporomandibular (jaw) joint problems. British Association of Oral Surgeons. www.baos.org.uk, published 7 March 2016
    • Temporomandibular joint dysfunction and pain syndromes. PatientPlus. www.patient.info/patienplus, reviewed 22 April 2013
    • Total prosthetic replacement of the temporomandibular joint. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), 27 August 2014. www.nice.org.uk
    • Joint Formulary Committee. British National Formulary (online) London: BMJ Group and Pharmaceutical Press. www.medicinescomplete.com, accessed 7 March 2016
    • Jaw joint problems. British Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons. www.baoms.org.uk, accessed 7 March 2016
    • Osteoarthritis. NICE Clinical Knowledge Summaries. cks.nice.org.uk, published April 2015
    • Arthritis of the temporomandibular joint (TMJ). The Merck Manuals. www.merckmanuals.com, published December 2014

  • Reviewed by Rachael Mayfield-Blake, Freelance Health Editor, March 2016
    Expert reviewer Dr Steve Preddy, Bupa UK Dental Clinical Director
    Next review due March 2019



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