When we think about dental, we generally think about teeth, gums, and even the tongue. But we often forget about a very important part that allows our lower jaw to move: the temporomandibular joint (a.k.a. the TMJ). Last time, we discovered what TMJ Dysfunction is, as well as the symptoms and causes. But what should you do if you suffer from TMJ Dysfunction?
Speak to Your Dentist
First thing’s first: book an appointment with your dentist so they can accurately diagnose your condition. As mentioned in the previous blog, diagnosing TMJ Dysfunction can be complex as there can be multiple contributing factors leading to different symptoms from person to person. Therefore, your dentist will be able to thoroughly advise you how to best treat your TMJ Dysfunction.
Your dentist may prescribe particular medicines depending on the cause of your TMJ Dysfunction. The most common would be nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (like aspirin or ibuprofen). They help to relieve muscle swelling and, of course, pain. They may also prescribe muscle relaxants to loosen up the muscles around your TMJ.
If your TMJ Dysfunction is caused by stress, anti-anxiety medication may be required in the short-term. Please note that they should only be used as a temporary measure.
Your dentist may recommend that you wear an occlusal splint which is a slim, acrylic removable guard fitted to your upper or lower teeth. It is commonly prescribed for bruxism (as the device makes it difficult to grind your teeth or clench your jaw) but it can also be prescribed for TMJ Dysfunction. It takes the pressure off your jaw joint and helps your muscles around the TMJ to relax (and consequently, heal).
Oftentimes, dentists recommend a halt to other dental work until your TMJ Dysfunction is treated. This is especially true of long procedures such as crowns or root canal treatments. The longer you keep your mouth open, the more you aggravate the joint. It could even damage the TMJ in the long-term so taking care of TMJ Dysfunction is definitely the priority.
Other Non-Invasive Treatments
There are other non-invasive dental procedures such as trigger-point injections where the dentist injects anaesthetic into the facial muscles around the jaw joint to relieve the pain. While the anaesthesia is working, your dentist would take you through some jaw stretching exercises.
Alternatively, your dentist may recommend other treatments outside the field of dentistry such as acupuncture, stress counselling, or relaxation techniques (like meditation) if your TMJ Dysfunction is caused by stress/anxiety.
This is generally only recommended when the diagnosis indicates a structural/bone problem with the TMJ and all other treatment options have been ineffective. Normally, your dentist will refer you to an oral surgeon who will examine you further and detail a treatment plan for you.
As this is quite an extreme option, it is advisable you seek a second opinion from another oral surgeon. Make sure you understand the surgical procedure, any risks (and benefits) that the surgeon informs you of, and the ultimate intended outcome.
Of course, there are exceptions to the rule: if you suffer from a severe degenerative disease, it is possible that surgery may be the first treatment option. This is probably because conservative measures may not be very effective from the outset.
Home Remedies and Self-Care
But what can you do at home? These are some things you can do to manage the pain and allow your jaw joint to heal.
Something to Chew On…
What you’re eating will help heal or aggravate your TMJ. Avoid foods that require:
- a lot of chewing (e.g. toffee, chewing gum, etc.);
- your mouth to open big/wide (e.g. biting into a whole apple); and
- a hard bite (or foods that are crunchy; e.g. a raw carrot).
Instead, a soft food diet is in order. Focus on foods that:
- can be cut into small pieces (e.g. cut up pear or mango, soft cheese);
- are soft (e.g. yoghurt, mashed potato); and
- requires minimal/no chewing (e.g. soup/broth).
Some people have reported that two to three weeks of the soft food diet alleviated their symptoms. However, this is not a guarantee. If your symptoms persist after three weeks, continue on your soft food diet while consulting your dentist for further treatment options.
Heating and Stretching and Ice, Oh My!
This treatment helps alleviate the symptoms of TMJ Dysfunction. Run a towel under hot running water and then wring out some of the moisture. Place the towel along the side of your face and temple and hold it in place for 10 minutes. The heat helps relax the muscles around your jaw joint.
Then stretch the muscles around the jaw. You can find some good stretching exercises here. Your dentist will certainly be able to recommend specific stretches that are tailored to your need. And then, finally, finish off the routine by placing ice along the side of your face and temple for around five minutes.
These are the simple do’s and don’ts to pain relief that you can do yourself:
- Avoid big jaw movements (e.g. yawning, yelling, etc.);
- Try to maintain a slightly open jaw as often as possible (as it is natural for your jaw to be slightly open when your lips are closed. If you keep forgetting, stick the tip of your tongue in between your front teeth);
- Remember to sleep on your back as it allows your jaw to relax;
- Avoid resting your chin on your hand or any other hard surface (that forces your jaw to close and increases pressure on your TMJ);
- When on the phone, don’t hold it between your shoulder and ear (as the phone would put undue pressure on your TMJ); and
- Combat stress by utilising relaxation techniques (e.g. meditation).
If you do need to yawn, use your hand to press your chin up. It will counterbalance the pressure around your TMJ and prevent your mouth from opening too wide.