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Health Answers

What causes TMJ and how is it treated?

Q. What causes TMJ and how is it treated?

A. Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorders, often called TMD or just TMJ, are a set of problems defined by pain or impaired movement in the jaw joint and muscles around the jaw. Common symptoms include clicking or popping sounds in the jaw when eating, difficulty opening the jaw fully, and muscle pain and tenderness. Sometimes TMJ disorders can lead to headaches, migraines, and neck pain.

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TMJ disorders are very common but not always severe. Dr. Jeffry Shaefer, an oro-facial pain specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital, says that 40 to 70 percent of people develop some symptoms of a TMJ disorder, but “many of them are not lingering and do not require treatment.” The culprit is not always obvious — sometimes a sprained jaw, sore muscles from overuse, or a problem with the shape of the jaw itself — and Shaefer says the pain can be exacerbated by clenching the jaw at night or chronic sinus problems. People with long-term TMJ disorders tend to have other chronic pain conditions as well, suggesting a larger issue with pain responses.

Shaefer says that it’s important for anyone with jaw problems to make sure they get a correct diagnosis from a doctor or dentist. Like other joint problems, chronic TMJ disorders are usually treated with a combination of physical therapy and exercises, behavioral therapy to reduce behaviors such as jaw clenching, and in some cases medication to treat pain or relax muscles. Surgery is an option in very severe cases.

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