I think I have TMJ. I’ve been reading up on it and I have a lot of the symptoms, particularly jaw pain. I’m only 29. I don’t know how I could have gotten this and I’m terrified to have surgery. I keep looking over stuff and all I can find is that I’m either going to have to have part of my jaw removed or have major reconstructive work done on all my teeth — and even that doesn’t come with a guarantee! I’m so scared I don’t even want to go see a doctor because he’ll make me get the surgery. Please give an honest answer. Will I have to have surgery? Or, can they give me some kind of medication to take to help me through, so I can put it off for a while? –Ingrid
You’re getting a little ahead of yourself here. Let’s walk through exactly what TMJ is, and what you realistically (and honestly) may be looking at.
TMJ refers to the temporomandibular joint, and everyone has one. In fact, you have two; one on each side of your jaw. When there’s dysfunction within one of the joints, it’s called temporomandibular disorder, often shortened to TMD. So, your concern would be that you have TMD, not TMJ.
The joint, itself, is rather complex. You have the bone joint, with a disc between the ball and the socket that helps provide cushioning when you move it- sort of like your knee. You also have several muscles and ligaments that help guide and control the movements when you chew or talk. So, there are lots of different areas that can be affected, as well as many different causes for TMD. While a more severe case may involve the wearing down of that disc, which would be quite painful, it’s incredibly rare for that to happen, mostly because people aren’t as “abusive” to their jaws as they are to other joints. For example, your knees will have trouble if you carry around extra weight or engage in rough sports. Age is a factor as well, but not for someone in their 20s- it’s seen more in much older or elderly patients unless there’s some kind of underlying condition. The same is true of your jaw. You probably won’t have issues with the inner workings of it unless you’re older, you have an underlying medical issue, or your jaw has had some kind of trauma.
You could also liken some jaw issues to “tennis elbow,” which you get by irritating the tendons in your arm through repetitive motions. Now, normal movements like natural chewing won’t cause TMD, but let’s say you’re prone to grinding or clenching your teeth when you’re stressed or perhaps you do it while you sleep. That would most certainly irritate the jaw.
Some other issues are more mechanical in nature. Maybe the teeth don’t align well or you bite down incorrectly. That can also irritate your jaw.
This is just a very small sampling of the things that can cause jaw pain. There are lots of potential causes and treatment has to address the cause, as well as correct any damage. This is something you want to address sooner rather than later because treatment at the early stages is often non-invasive. For example, if you’re a grinder, you may be able to wear a nightguard and your jaw will calm down on its own right away. Or, if there’s an alignment issue, there are oral devices that can often help correct it without any kind of surgery.
While there are more in-depth procedures for severe cases, odds are you’re nowhere near there yet, but you should see someone who regularly treats TMD. Someone who has had specialty TMJ training is going to start you off with the least-invasive treatment possible, and only work up to other things when splints and nightguards aren’t an option. Go get this checked out soon. You’ll be glad you did and will likely be relieved to know how simple treatment is at this point.