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  • Dr. Mark Freund

What Does TMJ Feel Like?

What TMJ Feels Like

Although all joints in the body are important, the temporomandibular joint (TMJ) is especially important because you use it all the time, even if you don't know what it is. The temporomandibular joint is what moves your jaw. You use this joint to chew your food and talk. With as much use as it gets, problems with it can be debilitating. We'll cover what TMJ disorder is, the causes, symptoms, and treatment options.

TMJ Disorder Definition

TMJ disorder, more commonly known as TMD, occurs when you have pain in the temporomandibular joint, which connects your jawbone to your skull and allows your jaw to move. TMJ can stem from a variety of sources, including jaw injuries, arthritis, overuse, clenching, stress, or simple genetics.

It can be difficult to identify the exact cause of a TMJ disorder. In some cases, these disorders are genetic—other times, they're caused by arthritis or an injury to the jaw. Jaw pain can also be related to bruxism or the clenching and grinding of teeth—however, many people who habitually clench or grind their jaw never develop a TMJ disorder.

The pain from a TMJ disorder is temporary in most cases. Many patients find relief with the help of nonsurgical dental treatments and self-managed care. In more severe cases, surgery may be necessary.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of TMJ?

Unfortunately, there are times when things go wrong, and dysfunction of the jaw joint triggers a TMJ disorder. The jaw joints are connected to many other parts of the body, so this can lead to many painful TMJ symptoms. By learning about these symptoms, you can get an answer to "what does TMJ feel like?":

Jaw Pain

When you yawn, do you hear or feel your jaw pop? If you're eating chewy food like crusty bread or caramel candy, does your jaw make clicking sounds? Do you feel like you need to "adjust" your jaw sometimes by popping it? These are all signs that you could have TMJ disorder. Like any other joint in the body, the temporomandibular joint should not make sounds when it's in use. Noises from this joint are a clear sign that something is wrong.

Jaw muscles often feel sore, achy, or tired when the TMJs are distressed. That's because any malfunction of the joint can push these muscles to work harder to compensate, leaving them tired and sore. Jaw pain is generally one of the first symptoms of TMJ disorder to appear for many sufferers.

It is also common for the jaw to emit audible popping and clicking sounds. This may be accompanied by difficulty opening and closing the mouth and stiffness that may even lock the jaw in place. This may be a sign of inflammation or an indication of physical issues with the cartilage or the small disk inside the TMJ.

suffering from TMD or Jaw Pain

In addition, toothaches are a frequent complaint. TMJ disorders are often linked with bruxism, and teeth grinding, and jaw clenching can set the stage for tooth damage, gum troubles, and other dental dilemmas.

Facial Pain

Discomfort in the facial muscles is fairly common. When TMD is present, nearby muscles in the cheeks and face are often recruited to help compensate. These muscles grow fatigued and achy because they're taking on tasks that they weren't designed for. If this persists, the face can even change shape to TMJ face shape and become more square as the muscles of the face grow.

Teeth grinding and jaw clenching are both causes of TMJ pain. If you notice that your teeth look worn down or have chips or cracks you don't remember getting from an injury, it could be a sign that you also have TMJ disorder. Patients may also feel that their upper and lower teeth no longer fit together properly—this can indicate that the temporomandibular joint dysfunction is so severe that the jaw is no longer aligned as it should be.

Back and Shoulder Pain

It's not uncommon for patients with TMJ disorder to experience pain in the neck and shoulders too. Like facial pain, this is also related to the muscle tension that leads to and is caused by TMJ disorder. Poor posture can cause TMJ pain, but poor posture can also be a reaction to TMJ pain.

In fact, the pain and muscle tension can extend into the back through the spine. Some people even complain of numbness and pain in their arms and fingers. This is likely the result of referred pain and stress.

Headaches are also associated with TMD. Some sufferers experience tension or sinus headaches that might be a result of referred pain. Others find that their TMJ disorder triggers their migraine headaches. Most often, headaches occur in the morning when you wake up after a night of clenching the jaw and grinding teeth.

The proximity of the ear canals to the oral cavity means that ear pain is a common symptom of TMJ disorders. Referred pain can trigger earaches, a feeling of fullness, and tinnitus. Tinnitus is the sensation of ringing in the ears.

How Long Does TMJ last?

Unfortunately, there is no telling how long TMJ flare-ups last. Since it can vary from one case to another, and severity differs based on its cause and the extent of damage in the jaw joint, there is no definite answer on how long the pain can last. Painful flare-ups could last for hours to a couple of days.

For many cases (mild to moderate cases), the pain is temporary and may be managed with a hot or cold compress, massages, and over-the-counter pain medications. In more severe cases, the pain can last for weeks and require medical intervention. Untreated cases could also develop into chronic pain.

The tricky thing about TMJ disorder also is that pain and discomfort in the area are not enough to diagnose and pinpoint an underlying condition. While you can always seek treatment and quick remedies, in some cases, doctors may recommend waiting it out to understand the condition and its timeline. This is vital to identify the causes and symptoms for the proper treatment.

What Causes TMJ?

TMJ disorder is caused by dysfunction in the temporomandibular joints, which connect the lower jaw to the skull. What causes these joints to stop functioning properly? Answering this question is a bit more complicated because there are a number of factors at play. If you have TMJ disorder, here's what might be causing your pain.

Teeth Grinding or Clenching

Many people believe that stress is the main cause of TMJ disorder, but this is only partially correct. Stress itself doesn't cause pain in the temporomandibular joints, but for many people, stress causes muscle tension throughout the body, which in turn causes them to clench their jaws or grind their teeth at night—clenching and grinding place a great deal of stress on the joints and teeth, which can lead to TMJ disorder over time.

teeth grinding and bruxism

Naturally, telling a patient to decrease the amount of stress in their lives is easier said than done; although we encourage you to make lifestyle changes, we also offer solutions that alleviate your immediate pain and prevent the nighttime teeth grinding and jaw clenching that is causing your TMJ disorder.

Joint Injury

Another common cause of TMJ disorder is an injury to the joint or jaw. Even an injury to the muscles surrounding the temporomandibular joints can lead to pain. A blow to the head or accident can dislocate the disc between the ball and socket of the joint, or the jaw can be moved out of proper alignment, setting the stage for chronic pain.

In cases where an injury is involved, pain may resolve on its own once the body heals from the trauma. Other times, the injury is permanent and must be treated in order to help you find lasting relief. We offer innovative treatment protocols to help you avoid invasive surgeries involving the injured joint.


Just like joints elsewhere in the body, the temporomandibular joints can be affected by arthritis. Both osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis may attack the TMJ, causing one or both of the joints to break down over time slowly. Because arthritis is a degenerative condition, we don't expect the symptoms to reverse themselves or get better without medical intervention.

At Natural Care Chiropractic, we take a holistic approach to TMJ disorder caused by arthritis. We'll collaborate with your physician or rheumatologist to address the underlying cause of your pain and also provide you with relief for your immediate symptoms.

Imbalance of the Spine

There is no part of the body that works in isolation, and this is true of the TMJ. Jaw muscles work with the neck muscles, and the neck connects to the shoulders and spine—when one of these is off-balance, the whole system becomes off-balance. Your teeth, bite, temporomandibular joints, neck, and spine muscles are all related, so we'll evaluate each of them when you come to Natural Care Chiropractic for a consultation. By correcting any imbalances, we can put you on the road to recovery from TMJ disorder.

What Are the Risk Triggers of TMJ?

According to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, over 10 million Americans are affected by TMJ problems. The truth is that everyone can potentially develop a TMJ problem, but several common factors can increase your risk. By knowing them, you can actively work to keep yourself healthy and pain-free, and if you do develop TMJ disorder symptoms, you can act fast to get the treatment you need.

  • Gender: Unfortunately, women are much more likely to develop TMJ compared to men.

  • Age: The older you get, the more likely you are to develop chronic pain and joint problems, and this includes your jaw as well. This is why a large proportion of those with TMJ are over 40.

  • Genetics: If members of your family have experienced TMJ problems, you are more likely to as well. A

  • Arthritis: Your TMJ can develop arthritis just like your knees or shoulders. People who already have osteoarthritis or Rheumatoid arthritis somewhere else in their body, have a higher chance of developing it in their jaw as well.

  • Bruxism/Teeth Grinding: Teeth grinding and TMJ have a cyclical relationship. A person who grinds their teeth at night can develop TMJ, and at the same time, TMJ can cause someone to grind their teeth.

  • Jaw Injury: Whether it's due to a fall, sports mishap, or motor vehicle accident, a jaw injury can create an imbalance in the TMJ that causes chronic pain and tension.

  • Connective Tissue Disease: This condition affects the tissues like the ligaments and tendons that go between various parts of the body, and it can impact the TMJ.

  • Sleep Apnea: People who have sleep apnea can develop TMJ because the stoppages in breathing may cause the jaw to spasm throughout the night, which can quickly overwork the muscles and cause pain.

What's important to state clearly is that even if one or more of these risk factors apply to you, this does not mean you will definitely develop TMD at some point. It simply means your risk is slightly higher compared to the rest of the population.

While you can't change things like your age or genetics, you can mitigate their chances of leading to TMD by simply visiting your dentist and primary care doctor on a regular basis, which will help them find and correct minor problems before they can turn into a full-blown TMD.

tmj disorder symptoms

At the same time, if you experience common symptoms of TMD (jaw pain, problems opening and closing your mouth, frequent headaches), then you should act quickly when it comes to seeking out treatment, as waiting will only allow the issue to become worse.

What are the risks if left untreated?

Experts agree that TMJ symptoms should be treated conservatively. At-home care often provides relief and can include resting the joint, applying heat and cold packs to your jaw, and doing gentle jaw exercises.

But if you ignore the signs and symptoms and decide to do nothing, what are the risks?

  1. Chronic pain – Untreated TMJ can get worse. As your jaw joint becomes increasingly stressed, headaches, earaches, jaw pain, and neck pain will also increase. Your quality of life can eventually become affected by chronic pain.

  2. Tinnitus – Tinnitus (ringing in the ear) can result from TMJ dysfunction. Tinnitus can be stressful and disturb your sleep.

  3. Dizziness – A poorly aligned jaw can put pressure on the sensors in your inner ear that are responsible for balance and make you feel dizzy.

  4. Sleep disturbances – The pain and discomfort from TMJ can disturb your sleep. Insufficient sleep can result in anxiety, depression, lack of concentration, impaired memory, and a variety of medical conditions.

  5. Misaligned bite – Joint dysfunction can cause your bite (the way your upper and lower teeth fit together) to be misaligned. A misaligned bite can create painful and costly orthodontic issues that, if left untreated, will last a lifetime.

What are the treatment options for TMJ?

Because TMJ disorders can have a variety of causes, there are also a variety of ways to treat them. Physicians will typically advise starting with home treatments first. This is because many of the more complicated treatments still need more studies to prove their efficiency.

Home treatments

In a lot of cases, the symptoms of TMJ disorders can be treated with self-care practices at home. To ease the symptoms of TMJ at home, you can:

  • Eat soft foods.

  • Use ice to reduce swelling.

  • Reduce jaw movements.

  • Avoid chewing gum and tough foods (like beef jerky).

  • Take measures to reduce stress.

  • Use jaw-stretching exercises to help improve jaw movement.


If you find that your TMJ is not eased by using home treatments, some medications — both over-the-counter and prescribed by a doctor — may provide more relief.

Some of these medications include:

  • nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)

  • corticosteroids

  • muscle relaxers

  • antidepressants

  • local anesthetics

Your doctor will help you decide which medication is best for you based on your personal condition and health history.


Occasionally, your doctor may recommend physical therapy. Depending on the area that needs attention, your therapy could include:

  • heat therapy

  • cooling therapy

  • tissue mobilization

  • resistance exercises

  • stretches

If you and your doctor believe your TMJ disorder may be caused by stress, talk therapy or stress management exercises are additional options.

When to Seek a Chiropractor for TMJ?

So what can you do for yourself if you have TMJ pain or feel you may have a TMJ disorder? A great place to start is to head to your chiropractor. Chiropractic care focuses on the optimal health and function of the nervous system, which is your body's communication system. The tool (method) used is a chiropractic adjustment.

tmd treatment

Although doctors of chiropractic primarily adjust spinal joints in order to remove any interference, the adjustment can be performed on any joint of the body, including the TMJ. The adjustment restores joint range of motion. When a joint doesn't move through its full range of motion, symptoms, and disorders often occur. The restoration of the joint motion through the adjustment often relieves the symptoms and disorder. Chiropractors may suggest the use of other deep tissue muscle work to relax the pterygoid muscles, or natural supplements, to help decrease inflammation.

TMJ disorders don't need to be debilitating. If you are suffering, there are options; if you particularly prefer natural approaches to your health and healthcare, know that chiropractic care may be a great option for you. Schedule an appointment to see the doctors at Natural Care Chiropractic so they can help you help yourself.

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