Chronic jaw pain? Could be TMJ

TMJ may sound like a music video channel (anyone remember VH1 or MTV?), but it actually stands for temporomandibular (TM) joint syndrome. The temporomandibular joints are located on either side of your head, right above the jaw, and enable many complex movements such as speaking and chewing. They can also be the cause of headaches, jaw soreness and stiffness, neck aches, and even a peculiar clicking or popping sound when you open your mouth wide. Have you ever had a dull headache for several days that you can't seem to get rid of, or experienced recurring jaw pain upon waking up in the morning or during the day? You could be suffering from TMJ, along with approximately 10 million other Americans.

Causes of TMJ

A host of causes result in TMJ: arthritis, poor posture (which makes you look poochy as well!), jaw misalignment, gum chewing, bruxism (nocturnal teeth grinding), and stress. Ah, stress. What doesn't it cause? Stress can be a major contributor to bruxism. Anxiety often physically manifests during sleep through teeth clenching and grinding, which not only puts you at risk for TMJ, but can also severely damage teeth and even loosen them to the point of falling out (in rare cases). It also leads to disturbed sleep, which in turn can increase stress levels, contributing to more intense bruxism in a self-destructive cycle.

TMJ is prevalent among women (especially those ages 18-44), affecting them twice as frequently as men. Why the inequality?Recent studies indicate that the hormone estrogen could be an underlying cause. Scientists aren't quite sure how estrogen is to blame for the preponderance of female sufferers, but there are estrogen receptors in the jaw, which may be partly to blame.

Grinding your teeth contributes to TMJ

Getting diagnosed

While there is no standard test doctors use to diagnose TMJ, dentists are often the first to raise the alarm. Sometimes TMJ can feel like a toothache or cause teeth sensitivity. If you suffer from bruxism, your dentist will be able to tell from the wear and tear on your teeth. He or she may send you to a doctor to do a physical examination of your neck and jaw area, as well as to rule out other causes of jaw and facial pain, like a sinus or ear infection, or even facial neuralgia.

Treatment for TMJ

If bruxism is causing your TMJ, your dentist may fit you with a splint or nighttime mouth guard, which will protect your teeth and lessen the strain on your jaw, but not stop the grinding or clenching. While non-custom splints can be purchased online, many dentists recommend having one custom-made if your bite is misaligned. Your dentist will create one that will facilitate a more optimum position for your jaw, allowing your facial muscles and ligaments to relax.

Other treatments include limiting intake of crunchy or hard foods and sticking to softer ones (one of which happens to be ice cream…just sayin'), applying ice packs, avoiding gum (which makes you bloated anyway), massaging the TM joints, and gentle stretching exercises. Avoid excessively wide yawning and loud singing as well.

Yoga for your jaw

The exercises to help loosen up the temporomandibular joints are quite simple, ranging from a chin tuck to a tongue drop. They're easy enough to perform at your desk a few times a day, and if someone asks what you're doing, tell them it's the new Kardashian technique for preventing wrinkles.

Stressful life? Welcome to the club

Since stress is considered a significant factor in TMJ, it's especially important for women to engage in activities to lower their stress levels. Women react differently to stress than men, both physically and mentally. The American Psychological Association recently disclosed an alarming statistic: almost 50% of women reported feeling increased stress in the past five years, versus only 39% of men reporting the same thing. Physical manifestations of stress, such as headaches and stomachaches, were more common in women as well.

Go ahead and have a relaxing breakfast in bed - it's for your health!

Dentists and medical professionals often recommend stress relief methods like exercise, meditation, and engaging in relaxing activities. While they may not release the same addictive rush as scrolling through social media or shopping online, these tried-and-true methods for stress relief remain the gold standard for a healthy physical and mental state.

TMJ is a common ailment that plagues women. Even though it's not seen as a threatening physical problem, ignoring it can lead to serious health consequences. If you suspect you may be suffering from TMJ, talk to your dentist or doctor about getting diagnosed, and seek treatment as soon as possible. And make time for five minutes of meditation a day!

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