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Can a Dentist Diagnose TMJ?

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A young woman with her left hand massaging her left jaw with a gesture of pain on her face.

Diagnosing Jaw Health

Many moving parts and essential tissues are involved in a healthy oral system. Most people know dentists care for teeth and gums. Your family dentist is also trained to diagnose and treat multiple oral health issues, including bone, jaw, and joint problems.

When you experience jaw discomfort or issues with jaw movement, you may benefit from a visit to your dentist to resolve bruxism or TMD. Find out about TMJ disorders and how your dentist can help below!

What Is TMJ?

TMJ stands for temporomandibular joint. Each side of your mandible (lower jaw) is connected to the temporal bone (sides of the skull) by muscles, ligaments, and the temporomandibular joint. The TMJ is one of the most complex joints in the human body, as it allows for a wide range of movements. 

The TMJ and supporting tissue help with multiple functions, including chewing, speaking, and swallowing. The joint can rotate forward, backward, and side-to-side. 

The term TMJ can also refer to temporomandibular joint disorders. The abbreviations TMD or TMJD are more accurate to avoid confusion with the joint name. Here, we’ll refer to the joint as TMJ and any disorder associated with it as TMD. Still, it’s typical to see any of the 3 abbreviations used. 

TMD or TMJ disorders can affect the muscle, bone, and tissue surrounding the joint. The condition can cause multiple symptoms, including:

  • Dental issues 
  • Headaches
  • Limited jaw movement
  • Malocclusion (jaw alignment shift)
  • Pain (face, jaw, or neck)
  • Popping, clicking, or locking of the jaw
  • Stiff jaw muscles
  • Tinnitus (ringing in the ears)
  • Vertigo 

Depending on the severity of the symptoms, TMD can make chewing or other movements painful or challenging. Notably, a patient may experience TMD symptoms on one or both sides of the jaw or varying levels of severity of symptoms on either side.

What Causes TMD?

Several factors can aggravate TMD. In many cases, there’s no known cause. However, TMD is commonly caused by jaw injuries or joint diseases like arthritis. 

Overworking the joint or prolonged strain can harm the jaw joint, muscles, and ligaments. For example, bruxism (jaw clenching and teeth grinding) is often linked to TMJ issues as it places significant pressure on teeth, joints, and tissue. Elevated anxiety levels and stress can cause you to clench your jaw or grind your teeth, and habitual pencil or fingernail biting can aggravate the joint or cause erosion over time.

Other causes can include:

Can a Dentist Diagnose TMJ Disorders?

General dentists can diagnose and manage jaw health—including TMD. During routine dental exams and cleanings, your dentist assesses your oral health, including evaluating the tissue surrounding your mouth, such as your neck, face, and jaw.

If your dentist observes changes to your oral health or you have concerns about your jaw health, additional assessments or X-rays can be taken to look for problems. Your dentist can develop a treatment plan based on your medical and dental history. When necessary, your dentist may recommend coordinating with other medical professionals, such as a physiotherapist.  

Your dentist may also refer you to a dental specialist with training specific to TMD. Orthodontists, oral surgeons, periodontists, or prosthodontists may be able to provide specialized treatments unique to their specialty.

A woman facing sideways and holding a blue hot compress bag placed on her right jaw to alleviate the symptoms of tmj

Treating TMJ Disorders

The appropriate treatment for TMD depends on the root cause and severity of the symptoms. 

For example, if bruxism is the cause, your dentist may recommend a night guard. Similar to how a sports mouthguard protects your teeth from damage during activities, a night guard help prevent undue stress on your teeth and jaw while you sleep. A custom mouthguard helps evenly distribute pressure from grinding and adds a barrier to prevent physical damage.

Various therapies can help reduce symptoms and prevent worsening outcomes. Some therapies can also address mental stress and anxiety to help reduce jaw clenching and grinding. 

Therapy options for TMD include:

  • Acupuncture
  • Cooling therapy
  • Heat therapy
  • Resistance exercises & stretches
  • Tissue mobilization

These options may be used in combination with medication. Some patients may benefit from over-the-counter pain medications to manage pain and control swelling. However, if you experience chronic symptoms, your dentist or doctor may recommend prescription medications or other solutions to relieve pain and prevent inflammation.

Surgery may be recommended if other treatments are unsuccessful or your symptoms are severe, such as the inability to open your jaw. Your dentist may refer you to an oral and maxillofacial surgeon to determine if temporomandibular joint surgery can improve your condition.

Botox injections are a new approach for treating TMD. These injections can decrease pain and improve jaw mobility in some patients. While some studies have presented positive outcomes, the research is limited. However, a Botox injection can be helpful for those seeking an alternative to surgery when approved by a medical professional.

Visit Us for TMD Help

TMD can significantly impact your day, whether you feel the occasional discomfort or severe symptoms. If you’re experiencing symptoms or have questions about your jaw joint health, book an appointment with your dentist. Early diagnosis can help protect your oral health and provide you with relief.

Visit Heritage Pointe Dental today to keep your smile healthy!

Posted in TMJ

Written by Dr. Michael Trac

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