Understanding Temporomandibular Disorders (TMD): Common Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

Temporomandibular disorders (TMD) are an umbrella of more than 30 different conditions that affect the temporomandibular joint (TMJ), muscles, ligaments, nerves, and teeth. TMD is a common condition affecting as many as 5% to 10% of adults in the United States. Patients with TMD experience jaw pain or discomfort, resulting from several factors, including stress, trauma, arthritis, bruxism, and other problems.

This section takes a deeper dive into TMD, its causes, symptoms, and treatment options. So let’s get started!

What is Temporomandibular Disorder (TMD)?

Also known as Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) dysfunction, TMD is a group of musculoskeletal conditions comprising the TMJ, the disc within the TMJ, and the musculature of the neck/jaw. The TMJ lies at the back of your mouth on each side of your face. It consists of the mandible (lower jaw bone) and the temporal bone (upper jaw bone). These bones meet at the condyle, where they form a hinge-like motion called gliding, allowing you to open and close your mouth. 

Plus, there are four small fibrous discs that lie between these bones. They help cushion this movement and keep them stable. The discs act as shock absorbers for the jaw joint. When it becomes damaged or inflamed, it can cause pain and discomfort when opening and closing your mouth. This often leads to headaches, earaches, soreness around the eyes, and difficulty sleeping.

What are the Possible Causes of TMD?

There are several possible causes of TMD. Some people have no apparent reason for their symptoms, while others may have one or more of the following reasons:

  1. Trauma – A blow to the head, injury, or surgery to the jaw area can damage the tissues surrounding the TMJ. If not treated properly, this can lead to chronic pain.
  2. Degeneration of the TMJ – Our bodies begin to break down as we age. Over time, the cartilage in the TMJ may wear away, causing it to become less flexible and less able to move smoothly. This can also contribute to neck pain and stiffness.
  3. Osteoarthritis – Arthritis is inflammation of the joints. In the case of TMJ osteoarthritis, the cartilage wears away over time, leaving the bones rubbing together. This can result from repetitive use of the jaw or excessive clenching and grinding of the teeth.
  4. Rheumatoid Arthritis – Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disorder that affects the joints. In the case of TMD, rheumatoid arthritis can cause swelling and inflammation of the soft tissue around the TMJ.
  5. Muscular Imbalance – Muscle imbalances can occur due to poor posture, muscle spasms, or injuries. For example, if you clench your jaw too much, your tongue will pull forward and push against your cheekbone, creating tension in your jaw muscles, thus pain and discomfort.
  6. C/S Injury – It’s not uncommon to injure yourself during childbirth. During pregnancy, your body undergoes significant changes, such as stretching out your ligaments and joints. After giving birth, your body goes through another change, and it may take months before your muscles and ligaments return to normal. This can leave you vulnerable to developing TMD because your jaw muscles aren’t working correctly.

What are the Symptoms of TMD?

Symptoms of TMD may include:

  • Pain and discomfort around the jaw, especially when chewing or yawning
  • Tension and headaches
  • Earache
  • Soreness around the eyes
  • Difficulty falling asleep
  • Jaw locking, clicking, popping, or grating
  • Degeneration/wear and tear of the teeth

How is TMJ Dysfunction Treated?

Treatment for TMD depends on the underlying cause. However, most cases resolve with conservative treatment options, including:

  • Manual Interventions

One of the best ways to reduce C/S muscular tension and improve AROM is through manual therapy techniques. These techniques involve using hands-on methods to help loosen tight muscles and restore proper function. They’re effective at reducing pain, improving range of motion, as well as increasing flexibility.

  • Mobilization/Distraction Techniques

Another way to treat TMD is with mobilization/distraction techniques. These techniques help relieve pressure from painful areas by moving them into different positions. The technique works well when combined with other treatments.

  • Physical Therapy

Nothing beats PT in improving posture and endurance/strength of the spine and the scapular region. When appropriately used, physical therapy can strengthen weakened muscles, increase range of motion, and decrease pain.

  • Oral Appliance Prescription by the Dentist

If you have a history of tooth decay, gum disease, or trauma, your dentist may prescribe an oral appliance to correct any problems. An oral appliance helps prevent the teeth from contacting each other while you sleep, which reduces the amount of stress placed on the jaw joint.

  • HEP to Continue Strengthening Posture

Home exercise programs (HEP) are among the most vital components of treating TMD. HEPs target specific muscles that control neck alignment and head positioning. They also strengthen the muscles that support the cervical spine and shoulder girdle.

  • Education to Avoid Straining

Finally, your physical therapist should guide you to avoid straining your jaw muscles. You should learn about everyday activities that cause jaw pain, such as playing sports, reading, talking on the phone, eating, and sleeping.

Cawley PT is Your Go-To Physical Therapy & Rehab Clinic in Pittston, PA!

At Cawley, we specialize in providing comprehensive physical therapy services to patients suffering from musculoskeletal injuries and conditions. Besides our extensive experience and expertise, we leverage the latest technology to ensure that our clients receive the highest quality care. We offer a variety of treatment modalities, including manual therapy, strength training, functional rehabilitation, and aquatic therapy.

To schedule an appointment at our Pittston office, please call (570) 208-2787 or email cawleyptfrank@gmail.com.