The 411 on TMD (Temporomandibular Joint Disorder)

We often take our bodies’ many functions for granted, thinking of our ability to walk, grasp objects, or even talk and chew food when something isn’t working properly. When we can’t do something like open our mouths without pain, discomfort, or limited mobility in our jaws, it gets our attention. Temporomandibular joint disorder affects millions of Americans and can have a significant impact on our quality of life. Learning more about this disorder may convince men and women suffering from it to seek the dental care they need.


The temporomandibular joints sit on each side of the skull and connect the jaw to the skull. The joint is unlike other joints in that it both slides and hinges. The temporomandibular joints allow the jaw to open and close, facilitating eating, breathing, and speech.

When you open your mouth, the rounded ends of your lower jaw, or the condyles, move along the joint socket of the temporal bone. The condyles slide back to their resting position when you close your mouth. A soft disc between the condyle and the temporal bone absorbs shock and friction to keep this motion smooth and discomfort-free.

If you’re suffering from consistent pain and tenderness in your jaw, pain when you chew and swallow, or difficulty opening and closing your mouth, you may suffer from temporomandibular jaw disorder.

What Is TMD?

Temporomandibular jaw disorder, or TMD, refers to problems with your jaw and the muscles in your face that control it. TMJ disorder affects an estimated 10 million people in the U.S. TMD is characterized by these symptoms:

  • Pain or tenderness in the jaw, ears, face, neck, and/or shoulders.
  • Clicking noises when you open your jaw.
  • Inability or great discomfort when opening your jaw wide.
  • Facial swelling.
  • Discomfort while chewing.
  • Locked jaw.

For most people, TMD is temporary and will go away without treatment. Some people develop long-term TMD problems and will require dental care. TMD appears to affect women more often than males.


Causes & Risk Factors

Like any moving part, your temporomandibular joint will experience some wear and tear. It may also shift out alignment from overexertion or an injury. Painful cases of TMD often occur if the disc erodes or shifts from its proper place. Arthritis can also wear down the cartilage of the TMJ, resulting in pain and discomfort. Blows or impacts can also result in TMD.

Risk factors for developing TMD include:

  • Heredity – If other members of your family have experienced TMD, you may be at elevated risk of developing it yourself.
  • Injuries – If you’ve suffered a jaw injury from athletics, an auto accident, or another cause, you may have an elevated risk of developing TMD.
  • Disease – A number of connective tissue diseases can put individuals at greater risk of developing TMD. Rheumatic disease, such as arthritis, can affect the joints in the jaw, causing inflammation of the tissues that line those joints.
  • Habits – If you grind or clench your teeth, stop it. Grinding and clenching teeth can contribute to TMD.

Lots of people can’t pinpoint a reason why their TMD started. It’s just something that happened to them and is quite painful. There isn’t a standard method of diagnosing TMD, as causes and symptoms may vary. Family dentists examining patients for TMD will generally listen to the patient’s description of his or her symptoms, conduct a detailed medical history of the patient, and examine areas where the patient is experiencing pain or discomfort. The dentist may also call for x-rays or other imaging. If all the evidence points to TMD, the dentist will make that diagnosis.


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