Temporomandibular joint pain (TMJ)
TMJ is pain due to the inflammation of the jaw joint. It can be very confusing because it often can feel exactly like an earache. For this reason, it often is the actual cause ear complaints that present to our office. While we don’t actually treat TMJ directly, it is helpful to discuss it a bit more.
What causes TMJ?
Inflammation in the joint or the muscles attaching to the joint leads to a pain in the ear, jaw, or side of the head. This inflammation can be due to a variety of factors:
- Clenching or grinding of teeth
- Frequent gum chewing
- Problems of the teeth or jaw leading to poor alignment
- Trauma to the jaw or joint itself
- Arthritis of the joint
What can I do?
- Try to avoid habits that increase inflammation (clenching/grinding, gum or ice chewing, widely opening the mouth)
- Keep your teeth slightly apart (try keeping the tip of your tongue between the front teeth)
- Don’t rest your chin in your hand
- Don’t hold a phone between your ear and shoulder (or other habits that increase tension of the neck muscles)
- Stretching or massage of the neck muscles
- Heat or ice to the joint itself
- NSAIDs (like ibuprofen or naprosyn) 2-3x per day for 2-3 weeks
- See a dentist for a bite splint
Are you sure it isn’t an earache?
The back wall of the jaw joint is the front wall of the ear canal. Because of this, the pain can often feel like a deep ache in the ear itself. By testing the motion of the joint, the muscles attaching there, and feeling the joint itself, it can often become obvious the jaw is truly the culprit of the pain. Other times you can try to press on the front wall of the ear canal with your little finger from inside as well.
Sample stretching exercises
- Use one hand to gently pull the head forward and hold for 60 seconds. (Chin to chest)
- While looking forward, bend your ear toward your right shoulder and hold using one hand (Right ear to shoulder)
- Repeat to left shoulder (Left ear to shoulder)
- Turn head to right and hold using one hand (Chin to shoulder)
- Repeat to the left
- Turn face slightly to the right and gently pull the head forward (Turned chin to chest)
- Repeat to the left
- Repeat the series 3-4 times per day and taper as symptoms improve