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Temporomandibular Joint Dysfunction (TMJ): Symptoms & Treatment

Instructor: Alyssa Campbell

Alyssa is an active RN and teaches Nursing and Leadership university courses. She also has a Doctorate in Nursing Practice and a Master's in Business Administration.

The temporomandibular joint, also known as the TMJ, is a hinge joint that connects the jaw with the rest of a person's skull. Read this lesson to learn about the symptoms of TMJ dysfunction and common treatment options.

Temporomandibular Joint Dysfunction

Jacob, a ninth-grader at a local high school, is an avid skateboarder. Unfortunately, at his last competition, he sustained a pretty bad fall and was eliminated from the rest of the competition. He went home upset and in general pain. The next day, Jacob woke up to pain and swelling on his right cheek, jaw popping when opening his mouth, and enormous difficulty while trying to chew his breakfast.

While Jacob was embarrassed to admit to his mom that he had fallen on his face at the competition, he knew that something serious was going on, so he told her some of his symptoms. Jacob's mom remembered that her father, Jacob's grandfather, once had jaw pain in the same location. When they took him to the doctor, they learned that he had temporomandibular joint (TMJ) dysfunction, or something wrong with the TMJ.

Symptoms of TMJ Dysfunction

The TMJ is the joint connecting the mandible, or jaw bone, to the rest of the skull. These joints play a critical role in allowing a person to bite, chew, speak clearly, and even swallow.

Acute Onset

It is obvious that Jacob sustained an acute trauma, or a sudden physical injury close to the area of the joint due to his fall. Even babies can suffer acute trauma to the jaw during birth! For Jacob, the doctor suspects the trauma is the cause of his sudden TMJ dysfunction and symptoms:

  • Pain: This can develop at the site of injury shortly after the acute trauma.
  • Jaw popping: This occurs when the jaw moves to open the mouth, creating a clicking or a popping sound.
  • Facial swelling: This may happen as a result of dislocation, fracture, or even an oral infection.

Chronic Onset

Jacob's mother reminded him that his grandfather had also been diagnosed with TMJ dysfunction. A result of chronic, or long-term, wear and tear on the TMJs, Jacob's grandfather experienced similar symptoms in addition to:

  • Headaches, due to clenching or difficulty chewing.
  • Dull jaw pain, occurring after long-term pressure on, or clenching of, the jaw.
  • Jaw stiffness, which creates difficulties chewing and safely swallowing food, along with difficulty speaking.

Treatment for TMJ Dysfunction

A variety of treatment options exist for TMJ dysfunction and are usually determined based on how the dysfunction developed in the first place. For example, Jacob's dysfunction happened fast and was due to a fall. His doctor is likely to send Jacob for diagnostic testing to determine if there are any bone fractures or displacements. It may also be recommended that Jacob eat a soft or liquid diet while his jaw heals from the fall. He could use over-the-counter or prescription medication to help manage his pain.

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