Q: Lately I have been waking up with headaches, and my jaw makes a popping sound when I open. Is this TMJ related? If so, what causes this, and what can I do to treat it?
A: Well, it sounds as if you are among the sixty million Americans who have been diagnosed with TMJ syndrome. The TMJ (temporomandibular joint) is a joint that attaches the lower jaw to your skull. The symptoms that you are describing may be a result of the TMJ not functioning properly, due to one or more of the following having been adversely affected: your chewing muscles, joints, ligaments or surrounding bones. It is difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of one’s TMJ syndrome. It may be the result of a traumatic accident or a disease such as arthritis.
The most common causes, however, are clenching and grinding of one’s teeth, which can tire and strain the chewing muscles, causing them to go into spasm and cause pain. An improper bite can also result in TMJ dysfunction. Among the symptoms are: headaches (usually upon awakening), tenderness or fatigue of the jaw muscles, earaches, and pain or difficulty when chewing, yawning or opening wide. Clicking or popping sounds are very common signs, and in some extreme cases (not yours), the jaw can actually get stuck in the open or closed position.
Most cases of TMJ disorders can be treated conservatively and successfully. Only a small number of cases require surgical correction, usually with those individuals who have suffered a traumatic injury. The first step is to eliminate the pain and muscle spasms. In mild cases, such as yours, this can be done with moist heat packs, a non-chewy diet, and muscle relaxants (if necessary).
The next step would be to try and become aware of the potential sources of stress and tension that could lead to clenching and grinding. A conservative therapeutic device that may work well for you is a corrective bite plate (made by your dentist), that will help to relax the muscles, thus preventing headaches, pain and spasm. Selective filing of an uneven bite to correct the “high” spots is a final attempt to treat TMJ conservatively, because the removal of tooth structure is an irreversible process.