Pain in the Jaw – TMJ Disorder (TMD)

Do you feel pain or tenderness in or around your jaw joints or muscles, or in and around your ear? Do you have difficulty or pain while chewing? Does your jaw occasionally lock, making it difficult to open or close your mouth?

The temporomandibular joints (TMJ) are the two joints connecting the jawbone to the skull, in front of each ear. The word temporomandibular is derived from the temporal bone of the skull above, and the mandible (jawbone) below. These joints allow the jaw to smoothly move up and down, and side to side. Thanks to them, we can talk, chew & yarn!

The term TMJ disorder (TMD) is used to describe problems that involve these joints and muscles. The most common feature of TMD is pain followed by restricted movement, and noises from the temporomandibular joints. TMD can have a detrimental impact to quality of life, because its symptoms can be chronic and difficult to manage.

Image by Jmarchn.

Causes for TMD

In many cases, the exact cause for TMJ dysfunction is unclear. The primary causes for TMD are thought to be environmental factors (jaw injury, arthritis, teeth grinding), genetics to a smaller degree, and stress – which may prolong or worsen the condition. A recent study by the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research identified clinical, psychological, sensory, genetic, and nervous system factors that may put a person at higher risk of developing chronic TMD.

Scientists are exploring a possible link with hormones, supplemental estrogen or contraceptives because TMD is more common (at least twice as prevalent) in women than in men.


  • Per the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, the prevalence of TMD is between 5% and 12%. In the United States, that’s between 16 and 39 million people. Unlike other chronic pain conditions, the prevalence rates of TMJ disorders are higher among the younger population.
  • TMJ disorders are between two to four times as common in women than it is for men.
  • More than 90% of patients who are seeking treatment for their TMJ disorder are women in their childbearing years.
  • Only about 50% – 60% of people with a TMJ disorder will seek treatment.15% of those left untreated will eventually develop a chronic TMJ disorder.


Symptoms of TMJ Disorder

For most people, TMD symptoms are temporary and do not indicate that a serious problem is developing. Often, the pain will go away on its own in a few weeks or months with self care. Some people however develop significant long-term symptoms such as severe pain and restricted movement.

Common symptoms for TMD include:

  • Radiating pain in face, jaw, or neck
  • Jaw muscle stiffness
  • Limited movement or locking of the jaw
  • Painful clicking, popping or grating in the jaw joint when opening or closing mouth
  • Change in the way upper and lower teeth fit together
  • A tired feeling in your face.
  • Swelling on the side of your face.

How is TMD diagnosed?

Your dentist will conduct a comprehensive exam of your mouth, teeth, and jaw, as well as reviewing your medical/dental history. Dental x-rays are sometimes needed. CT scan can help provide detailed images of the bones involved. MRI scans may also be needed to reveal problems with the joint’s disk or surrounding soft tissue.

Treatment Options

TMJ disorders can be treated effectively at your dentist’s office along with home self-care. Treatment options include:

  • Self-care practices – Eating soft foods, applying heat or ice packs, and avoiding extreme jaw movements.
  • Physical therapy – Learn and practice gentle muscle stretching and relaxing exercises to help reduce pain.
  • Medication – For teeth grinding or clenching, a muscle relaxant may be prescribed to relax the jaw. Non steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) can help with relieving muscle pain and swelling. Anti-anxiety medication may also be considered for relieving stress and help control pain. 
  • Appliance therapy – Your dentist may recommend a splint (bite plate) which can help your jaw relax and distribute pressure evenly across your teeth. A night guard is sometimes recommended if the cause for your TMD is caused by teeth grinding.
  • Occlusal adjustment – Your dentist performs minor reshaping of your teeth to allow them to fit together.
  • Corrective jaw surgery – A specific type of jaw surgery that helps realign the position of the teeth and the jaw. For patients with more severe or chronic TMD symptoms, this can help provide lasting relief.

Before undergoing surgery, the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR)Trusted Source recommends trying more conservative treatments first. For the majority of patients, surgery is not needed to treat TMDs.

Pain in the jaw (TMD Disorder)

At Dental Innovations of Virginia, our dentists and staff will work closely with you to diagnose, discuss treatment options, as well as implementing a comprehensive treatment plan for TMD. Doctor Coe is a prosthodontist who received additional training to treat TMJ disorders.

Insurance Coverage

Some medical and dental insurance plans cover TMJ treatments, including surgical procedures. Our practice will work with you and your insurers to maximize your benefits and coverage and minimize your out-of-pocket costs.

Dental Innovations of Virginia also partners with CareCredit, a healthcare financing program.

About Dental Innovations of Virginia

Dental Innovations of Virginia provides advanced general dentistry & prosthodontics, comprehensive dental services, and preventive dentistry for the whole family. In addition to our Lansdowne office serving the Leesburg, Lansdowne, Ashburn, Loudoun County areas, we also come to you via our DIVA Mobile Clinic service for patients living in long-term care facilities and our DIVA Home Visit service for patients who prefer to receive treatments in the comfort of their own home.