Our jaws have the ability to open and close, which allows us to speak, eat, and yawn. But when damage occurs to the temporomandibular joint (TMJ)—the joint that connects the jaw—our ability to perform these functions diminishes, hence the term “lockjaw.” The jaw becomes locked, disabling our full range of motion and making normal tasks quite difficult. The umbrella term for issues with this joint is called temporomandibular disorder, or TMD.
Picture a door hinge that moves, allowing the door to fully open and close. When the door hinge is working correctly, the door moves freely, but if it becomes rusted or damaged, the door may no longer open all the way.
Causes and symptoms of TMJ
There are many causes for TMJ, including:
- Joint cartilage damaged by arthritis
- Joint becomes damaged from injury
- Grinding teeth while sleeping
- Clenched teeth
- Excessive gum chewing
Symptoms of TMJ include:
- Pain and tenderness in the jaw
- Pain around the ears
- Difficulty chewing or opening the mouth
- Facial pain
- Locking of the jaw when trying to open it
- People between 20 years of age and older can develop TMJ
Temporomandibular joint disorder treatment and prevention
If TMJ is mild, it can easily be managed without surgery. Identifying the cause of your TMJ is the first step. For example, if you grind your teeth or clench them, you can opt for a mouth guard while sleeping to prevent that from occurring.
To ease the pain associated with TMJ, over-the-counter pain relievers and muscle relaxants can help as well.
A simple home remedy is to avoid the overuse of the jaw. Ensure you are not overly extending your jaw when yawning or chewing. A doctor or physical therapist may recommend exercises that can help strengthen the jaw. Oftentimes, applying cold and heat compresses can help to alleviate pain.
- Eat soft foods: Add yogurt, mashed potatoes, cottage cheese, soup, scrambled eggs, fish, cooked fruits and vegetables, beans, and grains to your diet. Cut foods into small pieces so you chew less. Skip hard, crunchy or chewy foods, and don’t take thick or large bites that require you to open your mouth too wide.
- Don’t rest your chin on your hand: Practice good posture to reduce neck and facial pain.
- Keep your teeth slightly apart: This will relieve pressure on your jaw. Put your tongue between your teeth to control clenching or grinding during the day.
- Acupuncture: A specialist trained in acupuncture treats chronic pain by inserting hair-thin needles at specific locations on your body.
- Relaxation techniques: Consciously slowing your breathing and taking deep, regular breaths can help relax tense muscles, which can reduce pain.
If natural remedies don’t help with TMJ, surgery may be required.
Some exercises to help ease the pain caused by TMJ include:
- Relaxed jaw exercise—This exercise is completed by resting your tongue against the top of your mouth behind your front teeth. Once in position, relax your jaw muscles and allow your mouth to open and your teeth to part.
- Goldfish exercises (partial opening)—Press your tongue lightly to the roof of your mouth and place one finger in front of your ear at the location of your TMJ. Put your middle finger on your chin and lower your jaw halfway before closing it again.
- Goldfish exercises (full opening)—Completed the same way as the goldfish exercise (partial opening), but instead of dropping your jaw halfway, you drop it fully, then close.
- Chin tucks—Set your shoulders back and bring your chest up, then pull your chin straight back into a “double chin” and hold the position for three seconds.
- Resisted opening of the mouth—Press your thumb under your chin and open your mouth slowly, using your thumb as resistance.
- Resisted closing of the mouth—Squeeze your chin between your index fingers and thumbs and close your mouth while gently placing pressure on the chin.
- Tongue up—Touch your tongue to the roof of your mouth and slowly open and close your mouth.
- Side-to-side jaw movement—Rest a quarter-inch-thick object between your front teeth and slowly move your jaw from side to side.
- Forward jaw movement—Rest the same quarter-inch-thick object between your front teeth, but move your jaw forwards and backward this time.