If you’re experiencing popping, clicking, or grating sounds whenever you open or close your mouth, chances are good that you have temporomandibular joint (TMJ) dysfunction, which is a problem with the hinge joint that connects your jaw to your skull. According to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, 5-12% of American adults deal with TMJ issues.

At the office of Virginia H. Ellis, DDS Dental Corp. in Orinda, California, Dr. Ellis and our team understand how uncomfortable and unsettling popping noises and other TMJ symptoms can be, which is why we offer treatments that can give you relief. Here’s what you need to know about TMJ dysfunction and what can be done about your popping jaw.

TMJ dysfunction in a nutshell

Temporomandibular joint and muscle disorders, commonly referred to as "TMJ" or “TMDs,” are a group of issues that cause pain and dysfunction in the jaw joint and the muscles that control jaw movement. These issues fall into three categories:

  1. Myofascial pain, which includes problems with or pain in the jaw-related muscles
  2. Internal derangement, which includes displaced joint discs and jaw dislocations
  3. Degenerative/inflammatory joint disorders, such as arthritis

You can have one or multiple conditions at the same time.

While trauma to the jaw or temporomandibular joint plays a role in some cases, most often, the exact cause of the dysfunction isn’t clear, and symptoms can seem to start without an obvious reason. However, since TMJ problems are more common in women than in men, researchers are studying a possible link between female hormones and TMJ disorders.

Bruxism, which involves clenching and/or grinding your teeth while you sleep, may also play a role.

Symptoms of a TMJ dysfunction

In addition to popping sounds when you move your jaw, the primary symptoms of TMJ issues are moderate-to-severe pain, tenderness, and discomfort in the joint and surrounding area.

Other TMJ symptoms can include: 

  • Tenderness or pain in the neck and shoulders
  • Toothaches
  • Swelling around the jaw area
  • Difficulty chewing
  • Difficulty opening your mouth wide
  • Locked jaw (either open or closed)
  • Dizziness, earaches, and headaches

Some people also experience tinnitus (ringing in the ears) and difficulty hearing.

Medical treatments for TMJ problems

During your evaluation, Dr. Ellis evaluates your bite and the functioning of your jaw before she makes a TMJ diagnosis. Depending on what’s causing your joint problem, Dr. Ellis may recommend one or more of the following treatments:


For pain, Dr. Ellis may recommend other-the-counter pain relievers and anti-inflammatory medications. If these aren’t strong enough, she might prescribe prescription-strength ibuprofen or a small dose of a muscle relaxant to calm the muscle spasms that lead to pain.

Night guard

The most common nonmedication therapy for TMJ issues involves using an oral appliance called an occlusal splint, or night guard. You wear this soft plastic device over your teeth while you sleep to prevent jaw clenching and teeth grinding.

Physical therapy is another option. This includes engaging in exercises that help stretch and strengthen your jaw muscles. She may also recommend applying heat to your jaw to help relax the joint.

Dental work

If an imbalance in your jaw is causing or contributing to your joint problem, Dr. Ellis may recommend getting your bite back in balance by getting dental work, such as replacing missing teeth or getting braces, crowns, or bridges.

Home treatments for TMJ problems

There are also things you can do on your own to help keep your jaw from popping, such as the following:

Stay aware

Try to stay aware of when your jaw pops. Does it happen every time you open your mouth? Or does it happen occasionally. If it’s occasional, pay attention to what you’re doing when it happens. There could be something you’re doing that’s causing or contributing to your problem.

And try to only use your jaw for eating, drinking, and speaking. Using it to chew on pencils, bite your nails, or even rest your chin on your palm could cause pain and muscle tightness.

Relieve stress

Engaging in activities to reduce stress, such as meditation or yoga, could be effective if you tighten your jaw due to stress. The less stress you put on your jaw, the better it will respond to therapy.

Change diet

Changing what and how you eat may also help relieve discomfort. Try eating softer foods and cutting your food into smaller pieces to reduce the pressure and stress placed on your jaw. Furthermore, avoid sticky items and chewing gum.

If your jaw is popping, clicking, and generally giving you grief, Dr. Ellis can help. To get a thorough evaluation and a treatment plan, call (925) 272-2698, or book an appointment online with Virginia H. Ellis, DDS Dental Corp. today.