You have two jaw joints, one on each side of your head. Called the temporomandibular joints (TMJs), they’re hinged joints that connect your jaw with your skull and allow you to open and close your mouth to eat and speak. TMJ is also the name given to pain, stiffness, and other issues related to the joints.

At Virginia H. Ellis, DDS Dental Corp. in Orinda, California, Dr. Ellis and her staff specialize in treating TMJ issues. One of the major causes of TMJ problems is bruxism. Here’s how the two are related and what that means for you.

Causes of TMJ issues

TMJ issues can be caused by any number of things. However, unless you have a direct jaw injury, such as from a fall or blow, the cause may not be readily apparent. In fact, TMJ issues can develop from a combination of factors, such as genetics, arthritis (degradation of the joints), poor posture, and repetitive motions, such as chewing gum.

The most common cause, though, is bruxism, which is the clenching and grinding of the teeth, either while awake or asleep. Bruxism affects up to one-third of adults during the day (often due to stress) and more than 1 in 10 in their sleep. The grinding wears down the teeth and stresses the TMJs, which can cause a painful, misaligned bite and other problems.

Common signs of TMJ issues

There are a number of symptoms that can indicate there is a problem with one or both temporomandibular joints. The most common symptoms include:

  • Pain and tenderness in one or both TMJs
  • A popping or grating sound when moving your jaw
  • Limited range of motion
  • Jaw joint locks open or closed
  • Pain in the temples/headaches/migraine attacks
  • Difficulty speaking and chewing
  • Uneven tooth wear, which may affect the bite

You don’t have to experience these symptoms to have a problem with your TMJs. Furthermore, if you don’t experience symptoms, you may not need treatment.

Diagnosing and treating TMJ issues

Dr. Ellis can confirm that your TMJ symptoms are caused by bruxism by examining your teeth. 

If your teeth — your molars especially — show signs of uneven wear, chips, or cracks, the chances are good that this is due to bruxism. In some cases, she may need to restore damaged teeth before addressing the other TMJ symptoms.

There are a variety of things Dr. Ellis can do to restore the proper function of your jaw, but what she chooses for you will depend on the nature and severity of your problem. In general, she’s found that treatment usually works best by combining in-office care with at-home care.

In-office treatment

The first step is to relieve any pain, stiffness, or muscle spasms you may have. She may recommend over-the-counter pain relievers and anti-inflammatories. If they’re not strong enough, Dr. Ellis may prescribe a stronger painkiller or a muscle relaxant. Or, she might recommend a steroid injection into the joint space to reduce the pain and inflammation.

When it comes to treating the TMJ issues, she often recommends oral appliances. Dr. Ellis can custom-make an occlusal splint (nightguard), which fits over the top or bottom teeth. These devices act as barriers between the upper and lower arches, so you can no longer grind your teeth. This, then, allows the muscles to relax and the pain to diminish.

Or, Dr. Ellis might recommend an anterior positioning appliance. This device moves your lower jaw forward, which relieves pressure in the muscles around the joints. You can wear it while you sleep or for 24 hours a day. A third option is an orthotic stabilization appliance, which moves your jaw into the proper position and holds it there.

At-home care

You can boost the effectiveness of in-office treatment by adopting the following self-care tips:

  • Make an effort to hold your teeth apart when not eating
  • Eat soft foods
  • Apply ice and heat to the joints
  • Perform jaw stretches
  • Practice good posture

Surgery is rarely an option for TMJ issues, unless the jaw is locked shut, is dislocated, or has undergone severe degeneration.

If you know or suspect you’re clenching or grinding your teeth, and you’re experiencing pain and stiffness in one or both TMJs, your next step is a consultation with Dr. Ellis. To learn more, call (925) 272-2698, or book an appointment online with Virginia H. Ellis, DDS Dental Corp. today.