Diagnosis

During the physical exam, your doctor or dentist will probably:

  • Listen to and feel your jaw when you open and close your mouth
  • Observe the range of motion in your jaw
  • Press on areas around your jaw to identify sites of pain or discomfort

If your doctor or dentist suspects a problem with your teeth, you may need dental X-rays. A CT scan can provide detailed images of the bones involved in the joint, and MRIs can reveal problems with the joint's disk.

TMJ arthroscopy is sometimes used in the diagnosis of a TMJ disorder. During TMJ arthroscopy, your doctor inserts a small thin tube (cannula) into the joint space, and a small camera (arthroscope) is then inserted to view the area and to help determine a diagnosis.

Treatment

In some cases, the symptoms of TMJ disorders may go away without treatment. If your symptoms persist, your doctor may recommend a variety of treatment options, often more than one to be done at the same time.

Medications

Along with other nonsurgical treatments, these medication options may help relieve the pain associated with TMJ disorders:

  • Pain relievers and anti-inflammatories. If over-the-counter pain medications aren't enough to relieve TMJ pain, your doctor or dentist may prescribe stronger pain relievers. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others), are a mainstay of treatment.
  • Tricyclic antidepressants. These medications, such as amitriptyline, used to be used mostly for depression, but now are sometimes used for pain relief.
  • Muscle relaxants. These types of drugs are sometimes used for a few days or weeks to help relieve pain caused by TMJ disorders.

Therapies

Nondrug therapies for TMJ disorder include:

  • Oral splints or mouth guards (occlusal appliances). Often, people with jaw pain will benefit from wearing a soft or firm device inserted over their teeth, but the reasons why these devices are beneficial are not well-understood.
  • Physical therapy. Treatments might include ultrasound, moist heat and ice — along with exercises to stretch and strengthen jaw muscles.
  • Counseling. Education and counseling can help you understand the factors and behaviors that may aggravate your pain, so you can avoid them. Examples include teeth clenching or grinding, leaning on your chin, or biting fingernails.

Surgical or other procedures

When other methods don't help, your doctor might suggest procedures such as:

  • Arthrocentesis. Arthrocentesis (ahr-throe-sen-TEE-sis) is a minimally invasive procedure that involves the insertion of small needles into the joint so that fluid can be irrigated through the joint to remove debris and inflammatory byproducts.
  • Injections. In some people, corticosteroid injections into the joint may be helpful. Infrequently, injecting botulinum toxin type A (Botox, others) into the jaw muscles used for chewing may relieve pain associated with TMJ disorders.
  • TMJ arthroscopy. In some cases, arthroscopic surgery can be as effective for treating various types of TMJ disorders as open-joint surgery. A small thin tube (cannula) is placed into the joint space, an arthroscope is then inserted, and small surgical instruments are used for surgery. TMJ arthroscopy has fewer risks and complications than open-joint surgery does, but it has some limitations as well.
  • Modified condylotomy. Modified condylotomy (kon-dih-LOT-uh-mee) addresses the TMJ indirectly, with surgery on the mandible, but not in the joint itself. It may be helpful for treatment of pain and if locking is experienced.
  • Open-joint surgery. If your jaw pain does not resolve with more-conservative treatments and it appears to be caused by a structural problem in the joint, your doctor or dentist may suggest open-joint surgery (arthrotomy) to repair or replace the joint. However, open-joint surgery involves more risks than other procedures do and should be considered very carefully, discussing the pros and cons.

If your doctor recommends surgery, be sure to discuss the potential benefits and risks, and ask what all your options are.

Lifestyle and home remedies

Becoming more aware of tension-related habits — clenching your jaw, grinding your teeth or chewing pencils — will help you reduce their frequency. The following tips may help you reduce symptoms of TMJ disorders:

  • Avoid overuse of jaw muscles. Eat soft foods. Cut food into small pieces. Steer clear of sticky or chewy food. Avoid chewing gum.
  • Stretching and massage. Your doctor, dentist or physical therapist may show you how to do exercises that stretch and strengthen your jaw muscles and how to massage the muscles yourself.
  • Heat or cold. Applying warm, moist heat or ice to the side of your face may help alleviate pain.

Alternative medicine

Complementary and alternative medicine techniques may help manage the chronic pain often associated with TMJ disorders. Examples include:

  • 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.
  • Biofeedback. Electronic devices that monitor the tightness of specific muscles can help you practice effective relaxation techniques.

Preparing for your appointment

You'll probably first talk about your TMJ symptoms with your family doctor or dentist. If their suggested treatments don't provide enough relief, you may eventually be referred to a doctor who specializes in TMJ disorders.

What you can do

You may want to prepare a list that answers the following questions:

  • When did your symptoms begin?
  • Have you ever had this occur in the past?
  • Has your level of stress increased recently?
  • Do you have frequent headaches, neck aches or toothaches?
  • What medications and supplements do you take regularly?

What to expect from your doctor or dentist

Your doctor may ask some of the following questions:

  • Is your pain constant or do your symptoms come and go?
  • Does any activity seem to trigger the pain?
  • Does your jaw click or pop when you move it? Is that clicking painful?
  • Is it difficult to open your mouth normally?