Among the other side effects of COVID-19 and the accompanying quarantine, dentists say that more patients are calling with broken or cracked teeth—a result of the stress we’re experiencing, which we often take out on our teeth with clenching or grinding.
But broken teeth aren’t the only oral health problem that’s increased. Many patients are experiencing jaw pain, likely due to disorders of the temporomandibular joint (TMJ).
What is the temporomandibular joint?
The temporomandibular joint (TMJ) is made up of the bones, joints and muscles of the jaw that let us open and close our mouth and move our lower jaw from side to side. These joints get plenty of use as we speak, chew and swallow.
What goes wrong when a person develops a TMJ disorder?
TMJ disorders may be caused by irritation and tenderness of the muscles that control jaw function, or a dislocation, displacement or misalignment of the jaw joint itself. Injuries, arthritis, or grinding our teeth when we’re under stress (or just out of habit) may also be part of the problem.
What symptoms might indicate that a person is suffering from a TMJ disorder?
Pain in the jaw area is the most common symptom. A patient might also experience pain in the face or neck, stiffness of the jaw muscles, limited movement or locking of the jaw, clicking, popping or grating of the jaw when opening and closing the mouth, ringing in the ears, or a feeling that the upper and lower jaw aren’t fitting together correctly.
How are TMJ disorders diagnosed?
According to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR), it can be tricky to diagnose TMJ disorders. The doctor usually begins with an examination of the head, neck and jaw, noting clicking, popping, or movement difficulty. X-rays and other imaging also can help with diagnosis. The doctor will first want to rule out other conditions that might be causing the symptoms, such as a sinus or ear infection or nerve-related pain.
How is TMJ treated?
The NIDCR assures us that most TMJ disorders are temporary. Conservative treatment is recommended, rather than surgery or braces. It’s important to see a specialist, especially if discomfort lasts more than three months. The NIDCR says short-term use of over-the-counter pain relievers can be beneficial, as can self-care practices such as:
- avoiding eating hard foods
- applying an ice pack
- avoiding extreme jaw movements like wide yawning, loud singing, and gum chewing
- learning techniques to relax and reduce stress
- practicing gentle jaw stretching and relaxing exercises that may help increase jaw movement, as recommended by a health care provider or physical therapist.
The doctor may also recommend a night guard to prevents tooth grinding. Treatment is individualized, and the dentist might recommend a specialized dentist or doctor.
Some patients might hesitate to go to the dentist at this time, but the American Dental Association (ADA) assures us that dental practices are taking precautions to protect patients during COVID-19. This is no time to avoid dental care. “Oral health is integral to overall health. Staying well depends on having access to health care, which includes dental treatment,” said ADA President Chad P. Gehani, D.D.S.
Dr. Gehani added that regular dental visits are important because treatment, as well as prevention of dental disease, helps keep people healthy. “Beyond teeth and gums, the mouth also serves as a window to the rest of the body and can show signs of infection, nutritional deficiencies and systemic diseases,” he said.
The information in this article is not intended to replace the advice of your healthcare provider. If you have questions about TMJ disorders or your symptoms, ask your doctor or oral health professional.
Source: IlluminAge AgeWise with information from the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research and the American Dental Association