TMJ—most of us have heard this term. For a variety of reasons, many of us have had inflammation, pain or stiffness in our temporomandibular joint that connects the lower jaw to the skull. Or perhaps we’ve experienced ringing in the ears, earache, headache, neck pain, shoulder pain—and other discomfort such as a sense of “fullness” due to trouble in that joint.
But by calling such problems simply “TMJ,” it’s like calling pain, stiffness or arthritis in the knee “Knee,” or in the elbow “Elbow,” says Dr. Daniel Bade, a dentist and specialist in orofacial pain and TMJ disorders with a practice in Hammond and LaPorte. When there are TMJ troubles in your life, they should be called TMJ disorders, TMJ pain or TMJ problems, he explains.
Bade says that the vast majority of TMJ trouble is muscular, like a “charley horse of the face.” Problems can also manifest in “clicking” or “popping” of the joint, or even displacement of the joint.
“But if it doesn’t hurt,” Bade advises, “don’t try to fix it.”
As a first line of defense for TMJ pain, Bade recommends simple fixes such as ice and rest. Or perhaps stretching, physical therapy, oral “appliances,” an injection, a medication or biofeedback and/or another type of psychological treatment to reduce stress and tension in one’s life—which can lead to TMJ problems from grinding and clenching on the joint.
Bade says 92 percent of TMJ pain will resolve using noninvasive techniques. The rest may require surgery—arthroscopic (a less invasive surgery) or a more aggressive approach in the operating room.
Bade says the longer one waits after experiencing symptoms, the harder it is to manage TMJ trouble and it can get worse. “Get to a dentist early,” he says, “as soon as you start to feel something.”
Women are more sensitive to pain resulting from TMJ problems for a variety of reasons and seek treatment in greater numbers, Bade says. Both sexes, however, may face roadblocks when trying to get insurance to kick in for the treatment of TMJ trouble. Bade explains that dental insurance often has low monetary caps and doesn’t go far enough in its coverage. And medical insurance won’t cover the treatment of medical conditions treated by dentists—so coverage is excluded.