A Guide to TMJ: What Causes TMJ Pain and How Is It Treated?

35.2% of American adults say they sleep less than 7 hours per night. While there are many causes of inadequate sleep, one that keeps people up is pain.

Not only do we get aches and pains in places like our shoulders, necks, and backs, but many people also get TMJ pain. This is where your jaws hurt and it can be so painful that it affects your quality of life.

So what causes TMJ pain? What exactly are TMJ disorders and how can you treat them? Read on to find out the answers to these questions and more!

What Is TMJ?

"TMJ" stands for "temporomandibular joint". This is the area that connects your lower jaw (mandible) to your skull.

Today, "TMJ" is a misnomer. People use the abbreviation to indicate the associated disorders, when in fact, it's a term for a joint. So when someone says they have TMJ, they really mean they have a TMJ disorder.

You'll also see "TMJ disorder" written as "TMD" or "TMJD".

Symptoms of TMJ Disorders

While there are a number of TMJ disorders, they have overlapping symptoms, as they all involve the same joint. Some common symptoms include:

  • Difficulty moving the joint
  • Pain and/or tenderness at the joint
  • Facial pain
  • Neck pain
  • Clicking and/or popping from the joint
  • Jaw locking

You might also have:

  • Headaches
  • Vertigo
  • Tinnitus
  • Malocclusion (misalignment of your teeth)
  • Other dental issues

As you can see, TMJ disorders are a serious issue. Not only do they cause pain, but they can also instigate a number of other health problems as well.

What Causes TMJ Pain?

While TMJ pain is apparent, the causes of TMJ disorders aren't as clear. There are some health conditions that researchers think might play a role in TMJ disorders coming about. Some of them include growth disorders, jaw issues at birth, arthritis, bruxism (grinding of the teeth), and clenching of the jaw.

There are also some risk factors believed to be associated with TMJ disorders. More research needs to be done before they can be confirmed, but some to watch out for include prolonged stress, joint hypermobility, poor posture, and the presence of estrogen.

How Are TMJ Disorders Diagnosed?

Because the causes of TMJ pain and disorders can be challenging to pinpoint, diagnoses can also be difficult to make. Unlike other diseases and disorders, there are no standard tests that doctors can perform on you to say whether or not you have a TMJ disorder.

Your primary care physician (PCP) may not be able to diagnose you, but they might refer you to a dentist or an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist. No matter which medical professional you see, they might use the following to help make a diagnosis:

  • X-rays
  • CT scans
  • MRIs

Treatments for TMJ Pain

While diagnoses can be tough to make, thankfully, there are several remedies for TMJ disorders.

Usually, your PCP/dentist/ENT specialist will start you off with home treatments. These are not invasive at all, which means if they're successful, you won't need more serious (and invasive) procedures done.

Home Treatments

One way you can reduce TMJ pain at home is to be mindful of the jaw movements you make. Not only should you reduce them, but you should also avoid eating tough foods and chewing gum. It'll be better if you can stick to eating soft foods.

You can also ice your jaw to ease the pain and swelling. Over-the-counter medications like nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can help. Your doctor can also prescribe corticosteroids, antidepressants, and muscle relaxers.

Most importantly, try to pinpoint what's causing you stress and decrease it if possible. You can also practice jaw-stretching exercises.


If the source of your TMJ pain is stress, then talk therapy can be an excellent option. You can work out issues with your therapist and find healthy ways to relieve stress, which can then reduce TMJ pain.

You can also go to physical therapy. After assessing you, the physical therapist might apply heat and/or cooling therapy, as well as stretches, tissue mobilization, and resistance exercises.

Dental Treatments

There are several dental treatments for TMJ disorders; the right ones will depend on your personal situation.

For example, the dentist may decide to move your teeth through braces treatment, or they might replace missing teeth with implants or crowns. They can also fill gaps between your teeth or make a plastic mouth guard for you to use while you're sleeping.


For very serious cases, you may need surgery to rectify the damage done by your TMJ disorder. For example, arthrocentesis removes fluid and debris from the TMJ. Or you might need to go under the knife to replace the TMJ completely.

Can You Prevent TMJ Disorders?

Unfortunately, in most cases, it's not possible to prevent TMJ disorders from happening. However, you can be proactive and reduce the symptoms so you can have less pain and better quality of life.

Some things you can try here include:

  • Reducing stress
  • Doing physical therapy
  • Wearing a mouth guard while sleeping
  • Taking muscle relaxants occasionally

Seek Dental Help Today

Now that you know what causes TMJ pain, the next step is to seek dental help. An experienced dentist will be able to give you a thorough exam, then talk it through with you to determine what's causing your TMJ pain.

They'll then provide you with a customized treatment plan. That way, you can address the root cause so you can prevent TMJ pain and keep your teeth and jaws in good shape!

So if you suspect you have TMJ pain, don't wait. You'll feel a lot better with professional treatment.

To get started, make an appointment with us today. We serve Rock Hill, SC and the surrounding area.