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TMJ Symptoms, Causes, Natural Remedies & What to Do About Them
March 12, 2016
Did you know that about 6 percent to 12 percent of the adult population in the U.S. (roughly 10 million people) experiences some sort of TMJ symptoms regularly? (1) Furthermore, it’s estimated that 17.8 million workdays are lost each year due to disabling TMJ pains and lost sleep.
TMJ stands for the “temporomandibular joint.” Also sometimes called “lock jaw,” TMJ is a term given to a collective number of disorders that involve problems with normal musculature and joint functions of the jaw. The temporomandibular joint is one of the most important structures of the jaw, made from hard and soft tissues that connect the lower jaw bone to the cranial bone in the skull. It allows for movement, chewing and other functions.
The most common symptoms of TMJ include limitations and deviations in the jaw’s normal range of motion, pain, and difficulty sleeping. Many people can find natural relief from TMJ when practicing exercises to help soothe their jaw, eating foods that lower inflammation, and using natural essential oils for both pain management and lowering stress. Emerging studies also suggest that the use of prolotherapy injections, a type of procedure that injects “irritating “agents” into the jaw to signal the body to heal damaged tissue, administered over several months can help significantly relieve jaw pain and improve jaw function compared to control injections.
Common TMJ Symptoms
TMJ is a ginglymoarthrodial joint, which means it’s capable of both rotational and translational movements. (2) Together, all parts of the jaw bones and joints facilitate with movements from side to side, up and down, grinding and hinging, helping with important everyday functions like speech and chewing food (mastication).
Because the jaw has so many important roles and connects to many sensitive nerves, TMJ symptoms can really impair someone’s quality of life in come cases, cause a lot of pain and even contribute to orthodontic complications that are capable of producing long-term damage.
Common signs and symptoms of TMJ (or “lockjaw”) include: (3)
- Pain and achiness around the jaw, neck, face, ears and shoulders
- Problems chewing normally and pain when eating
- Clicking or popping sounds in the jaw when chewing
- Trouble sleeping normally
- Ringing in the ears
- Joint pain
- Muscle spasms and swelling around the jaw and face
On the other hand, for some people TMJ produces no noticeable symptoms at all. About 25 percent of people with TMJ dysfunctions experience no pain or loss of normal functions, leaving their condition untreated for many years, which can be dangerous. Although TMJ can sometimes be painless, it’s still a problem because of how it slowly inflames and deteriorates the joints around the jaw. TMJ might also point to another underlying disorder, such as a hormonal imbalance, autoimmune disorder or even unresolved chronic stress.
Although some people develop TMJ after a trauma to the jaw, for most symptoms of TMJ tend to come on slowly as the joint degenerates, caused by degradation of the components of the extracellular matrix and enhanced levels of inflammatory mediators. Studies have demonstrated increased levels of inflammatory mediators in patients with TMJ disorders versus those without, which means TMJ might be pointing to an underlying issue.
Because symptoms of TMJ may not present themselves until the later stages of the disease, it can become harder to control inflammation and reverse dysfunction of the joint if it’s left untreated for many years — another reason to start addressing it now!
Related: What Is the Oral Microbiome? How to Balance It to Improve Overall Health
6 Natural Remedies for TMJ Symptoms
If you think you could have TMJ, first visit a doctor to get a proper diagnosis, since not every type of jaw pain is caused by TMJ or underlying jaw dysfunctions. If your doctor finds that you have damage that has been mounting for years, he or she might want to stop TMJ progression by having you wear a splint, bite plate or plastic guard to reduce clenching and teeth grinding at night. In extreme cases, your doctor might also recommend an injection to lower inflammation and pain-reducing medications.
Surgery for TMJ should be considered a last-resort option, since surgical replacement of jaw joints with artificial implants can cause severe pain and permanent jaw damage, plus changes to your natural bite and teeth alignment. Fortunately, most people with TMJ can experience significant improvements and pain reduction by making lifestyle changes and practicing gentle TMJ exercises on their own.
1. Try Targeted Exercises
While you generally want to take pressure off of your jaw, practicing gentle jaw stretches and muscle-relaxing exercises can help increase jaw movement and range of motion. (4) You can work with your doctor or a physical therapist to learn appropriate TMJ exercises that you can practice at home for several minutes one or two times per day.
Chiropractic adjustments are another good option, since poor posture and problems with muscles in the cervical spine getting tight can contribute to jaw problems. Chiropractors use their hands to get rid of restrictions in the craniosacral system, the fluid and membranes surrounding the spine and brain.
One study found done by the Tokyo Medical and Dental University found that jaw exercises helped reduce TMJ symptoms even better than jaw splints and did so more quickly. Half of the study’s participants received a verbal explanation of their pathological conditions regarding jaw function and were taught simple self-care practices, such as good posture, soft foods in the diet, keeping their teeth apart and exercising the jaw. Participants in the splint group wore a maxillary stabilization appliance while sleeping at night, while those in the exercise group performed manual jaw-opening exercises by themselves and didn’t wear a splint.
The exercise protocol consisted of a warm-up, repeated small mouth-opening and closing movements, and placing fingertips on the edge of the mandibular anterior teeth to slowly pull the mandible down and relieve tension. Participants performed four sets of exercises per day, and all participants in both groups also took a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug. After eight weeks, both groups experienced significant reductions in pain, but only those performing jaw exercises had improvements in mouth-opening range, plus they began recovery of jaw functions earlier compared with the group wearing splints. (5)
2. Reduce Stress and Get Enough Rest
Stress and TMJ are linked in several ways, so learning techniques for relaxing and reducing stress is important to get symptoms under control. Relaxation practices like exercising, stretching, meditating/praying, deep breathing or using guided imagery can be helpful for getting better sleep and dealing with the pain that accompanies TMJ dysfunction. According to the TMJ Association, some studies have found that a combination of practices like yoga, massage therapy and meditation aid in relaxation in TMJ patients. (6)
Massage therapy and acupuncture has also been found to help lower chronic TMJ pain, joint pain in general and stress in several studies. (7) Getting enough sleep is important as well for controlling inflammation and dealing with stress, so if you can’t sleep, figuring out how is the first step. Try sleeping on your side using a pillow support between your shoulder and neck if you’re experiencing pain. You might also benefit from wearing a guard to stop grinding or another insert to help relax your lips and keep your teeth apart during the night.
3. Eat an Anti-Inflammatory Diet
Inflammation around the joints in the jaw leads to worsened pain and TMJ symptoms. Eating an anti-inflammatory diet, especially one with lots of easy-to-chew cooked foods if you’re experiencing a lot of pain, will help reduce swelling and joint deterioration. Eating regularly every few hours is also beneficial for stabilizing blood sugar levels and helping prevent teeth clenching out of anxiousness.
Avoid foods that can worsen joint inflammation, add stress to the body and cause blood sugar swings, including added sugars, refined grain products, alcohol and too much caffeine. Some of the best anti-inflammatory foods for healing TMJ from the inside out include:
- Soft foods that are easy to chew: Soups, stews, smoothies and cooked/steamed vegetables are great ways to get more nutrients without needing to eat hard foods.
- Omega-3 foods: Omega-3s fight inflammation naturally and can help improve circulation. Get them from wild-caught fish, such as salmon, sardines and mackerel.
- Collagen protein: It helps rebuild tissue, including cartilage.
- Foods high in electrolytes: Blended, steamed or pureed vegetables and fruits are the best sources of electrolytes like magnesium, calcium and potassium, which can help prevent muscle spasms and other symptoms of deficiencies that are tied to TMJ. Leafy greens, cooked broccoli and other cruciferous veggies, berries and mashed sweet potatoes are all good options.
- Eggs, raw dairy and protein shakes: If you have difficulty chewing protein foods, try these options as an easy way to get enough protein.
- Anti-inflammatory herbs and teas: Green tea, turmeric, raw garlic and fresh herbs/spices are great ways to add flavor to your diet along with anti-inflammatory benefits.
Besides stretching and strengthening your jaw, regular exercise using your whole body is a great natural stress reliever. In addition, lowering inflammation, balancing blood sugar levels and helping you sleep better are some of the benefits of exercise. Aim for at least 30–60 minutes daily most of the week.
5. Reduce Pain Naturally
Several practices can help you ease tension around the jaw and lower inflammation. You can apply an ice pack or warm compress against your jaw one to two times a day to relax the muscles, lower inflammation and improve circulation. Dry needling has shown some promise.
Some people find more relief when using ice since this decreases nerve transmission in pain fibers, helps raise the pain threshold, over-rides some pain sensations and helps release endorphins that naturally block some pain.
Supplements including glucosamine, a B vitamin complex, magnesium, vitamin C, calcium and adaptogen herbs to lower cortisol (like ashwagandha, maca, kava and holy basil) are all useful for preventing symptoms related to stress. Avoiding difficult-to-chew foods, gum, chewing candies, yawning and other painful movements of the jaw also takes some pressure off while you heal.
Also consider using essential oils to lower anxiety and pain, such as peppermint oil, frankincense oil and lavender oil (mix one drop of each oil with 1/4 teaspoon of coconut oil and rub on to the area of pain) to lower stress, swelling and tension.
6. Consider Prolotherapy Injections
A May, 2019 randomized controlled trial published in the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings found that the use of prolotherapy injections administered over several months helped to significantly relieve jaw pain and improve function among adults with TMJ when compared to control injections. (9)
The study was conducted over the course of two years. Symptom relief was seen 3 months after prolotherapy injections started and clinical improvements lasted to 12 months. Overall, “satisfaction was high” among the group receiving prolotherapy treatments. Participants who had mouth opening abilities that were initially restricted gained significant range of motion in their mouths/jaws. Pain and dysfunction improved by at least 50 percent in 38 of 54 participants (70 percent of all participants).
Participants in the prolotherapy group received injections with 20% dextrose/0.2% lidocaine (an analgesic), while the control group received injections with only 0.2% lidocaine. Dextrose is a type of “natural irritant agent” (it consists of sugar molecules) that initiates and regulates basic aspects of natural wound healing. Researchers involved in the study state that injections of dextrose to treat chronic musculoskeletal pain (also called dextrose prolotherapy or DPT) is supported by systematic reviews and is becoming more commonly used. It’s believed that dextrose prolotherapy injections work for TMJ because this treatment has a “multifactorial effect”. Prolotherapy for TMJ has been shown to initiate fibroblast proliferation which produces stronger, thicker, and more organized connective tissue, and to reduce nerve swelling and compression in the jaw.
Prevalence and Facts About TMJ
- Although both genders get TMJ, it’s much more common among women than in men — up to 90 percent of TMJ patients who see a doctor for TMJ are female. (10) One reason this might be true is because of hormonal influences and stress; women report dealing with higher amounts of chronic anxiety/stress and also impaired sleep as a result.
- TMJ is most common among 18- to 45-year-olds. The single most effected group is women of “reproductive age.”
- The risk for TMJ goes up in people who have had other orthodontic complications or joint disorders. Approximately 80 percent of people with TMJ also have signs and symptoms of joint diseases, including disc displacement, arthralgia and osteoarthritis/degenerative joint disease.
- The higher amount of stress someone is under, the likelier that person is to suffer from TMJ. Stress raises inflammation and also disturbs hormonal balance, both of which play a part in the development of TMJ.
- Roughly 75 percent of people with dysfunctions of the jaw experience TMJ symptoms, but 25 percent are unaware of their problem and therefore never see a doctor to treat it.
- One study found that in 25 percent of patients with TMJ, the pain could be linked directly to some sort of trauma of the jaw, while the remaining 75 percent develop it from factors like joint deterioration, stress and hormonal imbalances.
Causes of TMJ
Unusual pressure placed on the jaw is the underlying reason that misalignments develop in the jaw’s muscles and joints, forming TMJ. The temporomandibular joint is located in the front of the ear and allows for the upper and lower parts of the jaw to meet and “glide” back and forth. This hinge joint consists of several smaller parts that normally allow for movements without friction or pain, including the condyle (the rounded part of the moveable joint) and the articular fossa (the socket that connects to the condyle).
Between the condyle and articular fossa is a small disk made from cartilage that has the job of absorbing shock, pressure and friction, enabling the mouth to open and close. In people with TMJ, dysfunctions of both the muscles and joints can contribute to the problem.
How at risk are you for developing TMJ?
There are several factors that raise the risk for TMJ, including:
- Being a woman: Women develop TMJ symptoms much more often. Some possible explanations for why include hormonal effects, high amounts of stress, nutrient deficiencies and loss of certain nutrients during menstruation, the use of synthetic hormone medications, and the fact that women’s jaws might be more delicate to pressure. Women are more prone to periodontal diseases in general, and women’s hormones have been shown to impact blood supply to the jaw and how the body processes toxins.
- Grinding the teeth: Known as “bruxism,” teeth grinding puts added pressure on the joint between the ball and socket of the jaw, wearing down cartilage. Nervous tension, anger and frustration can cause people to start showing signs of bruxism.
- Stress: TMJ is frequently worsened when someone is under a lot stress. Many people wind up sleeping badly, grinding their teeth and clenching their jaws when feeling tense, which only aggravates TMJ symptoms. Stress also makes it hard to sleep well and increases secretion of cortisol, which contributes to hormonal imbalances and can trigger more inflammation.
- Hormone imbalances: Some research suggests a link between estrogen (estradiol) imbalances, pain and jaw disorders. Certain animal studies have found females with lower endogenous serum levels of estradiol have an increased risk for TMJ and that estradiol and progesterone seem to be protective. (12)
- Birth control pills and hormonal replacements: Women who take hormone replacement therapy drugs or the birth control pill also experience TMJ more often than those who don’t. (13)
- A poor diet/vitamin deficiencies: Deficiencies in several key nutrients, including electrolytes like magnesium, are common among people with TMJ.
- Arthritis: Having arthritis, fibromyalgia symptoms or another autoimmune disorder increases risk for TMJ since this wears away joint cartilage.
- Frequent gum chewing: Having a piece of gum now and then is unlikely to cause TMJ, but habitual gum chewing can put added stress on the jaw.
Final Thoughts on TMJ Symptoms
- About 6 percent o 12 percent of the adult population in the U.S. (roughly 10 million people) experiences some sort of TMJ symptoms regularly. In addition, it’s estimated that 17.8 million workdays are lost each year due to disabled TMJ pains and lost sleep.
- Common signs and symptoms of TMJ include pain and achiness around the jaw, neck, face, ears and shoulders; problems chewing normally and pain when eating; clicking or popping sounds in the jaw when chewing; headaches; trouble sleeping normally; dizziness; ringing in the ears; joint pains; and muscle spasms and swelling around the jaw and face.
- However, for some people, TMJ produces no noticeable symptoms at all. About 25 percent of people with TMJ dysfunctions experience no pain or loss of normal functions, leaving their condition untreated for many years, which can be dangerous.
- To treat TMJ symptoms, try targeted exercises, reduce stress, get enough rest, eat an anti-inflammatory diet, exercise and reduce pain naturally.
- TMJ is much more common in women than men. In addition, TMJ is most common among 18- to 45-year-olds. The single most effected group is women of “reproductive age.”
- Unusual pressure placed on the jaw is the underlying reason that misalignments develop in the jaw’s muscles and joints, forming TMJ.