What is TMJ Syndrome?

If I Have It, What Can I Do About It?

TMJ Syndrome results from stress. As you sit at the computer, you have your head forward, putting strain on your face and neck muscles. After a long busy day, you crash into bed. You try to sleep, but your mind keeps reliving your stressful day. As you drift off to sleep, you clench your jaw with unprocessed anger or frustration. During the night you grind your teeth, putting more stress on your jaw muscles. You regularly don’t get enough sleep. After hours of this nighttime stress on your facial muscles, you wake up… unable to open your mouth!

Your jaw joint, or temporomandibular joint, allows you to open and close your mouth. You can feel your joint by putting your fingertips under your ears and opening your mouth all the way. If you feel any popping, clicking, or pain, you might have temporomandibular joint syndrome, or TMJ syndrome.

The result of TMJ Syndrome goes beyond just jaw joint pain. You may:

• Have difficulty chewing, or have a clicking sound while chewing

• Have difficulty opening your mouth fully

• Experience facial pain, headaches or earaches

• Experience pinched nerves around your jaw

TMJ Syndrome symptoms often show up at night if you are unknowingly stressing your jaw muscles in your sleep. Other possible causes of TMJ-related symptoms include arthritis, fractures, dislocations, and structural problems present since birth.

One morning a few years ago, I woke up unable to open my mouth. I couldn’t yawn, talk or even brush my teeth! I called my doctor immediately in a panic. She said it sounded like Temporomandibular Joint (TMJ) Syndrome. Unfortunately, she didn’t have much to say on how to help (typical). She told me to take pain medication, but it really didn’t hurt.

I found immediate relief with a boil-and-bite guard I bought at the pharmacy. With that, I trained myself to pay attention to when I clenched my teeth and jaw and consciously decided to “unclench”. Much later, I was at the dentist’s office and without me mentioning it, the dentist asked if I ever have jaw pain. Apparently, just how my joint feels when it opens was a give away! If I had not been successful in training myself not to clench my teeth, the dentist would have made me a bite guard to prevent me from grinding my teeth away. My regular visits to my dentist assure me that my TMJ Syndrome will not cause unnoticed permanent damage to my teeth and jaw joint. If you feel you need a professional, I recommend your dentist over your doctor.

The long-term solution for my TMJ Syndrome required me to re-examine my life at that point. I was under a lot of stress. My jaw pain was the physical manifestation of my stress, and it was the tipping point… it gave me the motivation to say “no” to some commitments and my overall health improved because of it.

I believe everything happens for a reason. I am thankful for my tendency to clench my jaw because it always opens my eyes to how stress has crept into my life and makes me rethink my current commitment level.

If you find yourself experiencing jaw joint pain, try any combination of these tips:

• Eat soft foods during painful times.

• Apply a warm compress to your jaw, especially at bed time.

• After warm compress, open and close your jaw for five minutes. You may do this several times a day for a few weeks.

• If your jaw and facial muscles feel sore, swollen and inflamed, take an anti-inflammatory, like acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Motrin) or aspirin.

But a long term solution will include training yourself to avoid the jaw stressing behavior, be it jaw clenching or teeth grinding or what have you, and avoiding the stressful life situations that lead to the jaw stress in the first place.

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