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Everyone opens their mouths to chew, speak and swallow without a second thought, thanks to the body’s complex and unique temporomandibular joint anatomy. This joint, also known as the TMJ, connects your jaw to the rest of your skull and allows you to push your jaw back, forward and sideways, and open and close your mouth. The Jaw Health Resource points out the set of strong muscles on the side of your face and head that produce all of this movement.

However, complications can arise with a joint with this many moving parts. According to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR), there are three common TMJ disorders people often experience.

1. Muscle Complications

The muscles responsible for moving your jaw can handle a lot of chewing and talking, but overuse may lead to tightness and pain. Opening your jaw too widely, clenching or grinding your teeth, injuries to your head or neck, sleep disorders and emotional stress can all adversely affect these muscles.

Some suggested treatment can be as simple as ice packs, not opening your mouth too wide and eating soft foods to give the muscles of your jaws a chance to recover. If you grind or clench your teeth, your dentist may suggest wearing a mouth guard at night to give relief and help manage your habit. Other treatment options supported by the NIDCR and dentists are physical therapy, stress management and short-term use of drugs that relax the muscles. However, in some instances, over-the-counter pain medications, such as ibuprofen, may be enough to ease the discomfort. But this should always be discussed with your doctor or dentist, and any medication should be taken with care and caution.

2. Joint and Disc Displacement

Trauma and jaw injuries can cause the joint itself to become dislocated or displace the TMJ’s soft, shock-absorbing disc, located in the ball-and-socket portion of the joint. Besides experiencing pain when chewing hard foods and having difficulty opening your mouth, joint derangement may cause noticeable clicking or popping sounds when you move your mouth.

Medication may be prescribed for pain and in some cases, the displaced joint or disc will move back into its normal position. If you see your dentist soon after symptoms develop, they may be able to manually reposition the disc back or make a splint that moves your jaw forward and keeps the disc in its correct position, until the ligaments tighten enough to hold it in place. Other treatments described in the Merck Manual involve using passive jaw devices several times a day to slowly increase jaw movements. Anyone with this condition should try not to open their mouth too wide and eat only small, easy-to-chew pieces of food.

If nonsurgical attempts of correcting the dislocation aren’t successful, arthroscopic surgery may be recommended to reposition or replace the joint. Your dentist can talk you through these options with you and would refer you to an Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeon.

3. Arthritis

Arthritis can affect any of your joints, and the TMJ is no exception. According to the National Institutes of Health, 27 million people live with osteoarthritis, which causes the deterioration of the cartilage in joints. The Merck Manual suggests that arthritis can affect the TMJ because the cartilage is not as strong, but it mostly occurs when the disc is missing or deformed. Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease that causes pain and inflammation in many joints, and the Merck Manual says that 17 per cent of people with RA have their TMJ affected as a secondary condition.

Treatment for osteoarthritis of the TMJ may involve resting the jaw, analgesics for pain and possibly a splint to relieve muscle tightness. Symptoms may subside, but your ability to open your mouth might be limited. When RA affects your TMJ, you may be treated with the same RA drugs used for any joint, along with NSAIDs for pain. Keeping the TMJ mobile is important; therefore, your doctor may recommend physical therapy and a splint to relieve muscle tightness.

Temporomandibular joint anatomy is intricate, and problems can arise. If you ever have jaw pain or trouble opening your mouth, see your dentist right away. If your dental office doesn’t handle TMJ issues, you may be referred to a practice that does.