You woke up one day with a sore, tight jaw. No problem – it’s probably just a minor strain, you think. But as days turn to weeks and then to months, the pain, tightness, and dysfunction persists. Your temporary TMJ flare up has now entered a long, grueling phase.
This prolonged worsening of symptoms is known as a temporomandibular joint (TMJ) flare up.
TMJ refers to the hinge joints on each side of the jaw that connect the lower jawbone to the skull. These joints are highly complex and loaded with muscles, tendons, discs, nerves and tissues that allow intricate jaw movements. However, this complexity also provides ample opportunity for problems.
So, what’s happening with your jaw?
Symptoms of TMJ Flare Up
A TMJ flare up involves increased inflammation, muscle spasms, and joint irritation in your temporomandibular structures.
Flares often first appear as soreness while chewing or stabbing pain in front of the ear. Other symptoms also develop, including:
- Reduced motion
While flares are usually short-term, a small percentage turn into grueling ordeals lasting many miserable months.
But with a combination of lifestyle changes, medical therapies, psychological techniques and patience, you can eventually reclaim a comfortable, properly functioning jaw.
Why is the TMJ lasting?
Many acute TMJ flare ups resolve within weeks as inflammation subsides. But a small percentage of cases linger for months due to factors like:
1. Severe Underlying Dysfunction
In some cases, the acute flare-up of TMJ symptoms may be a manifestation of more severe underlying issues. Conditions such as disc displacements within the TMJ or osteoarthritis can lead to more sustained inflammation. When these structural problems are present, they often require more specialized and prolonged treatment to alleviate symptoms fully.
2. Habits Causing Ongoing Irritation
Certain habits can perpetuate TMJ symptoms. Clenching and grinding the teeth, known as bruxism, can place excessive stress on the TMJ and surrounding muscles, leading to ongoing irritation. Chewing gum, especially if done vigorously, can also contribute to jaw muscle strain. Identifying and addressing these habits is a crucial step in managing and resolving TMJ discomfort.
3. Stress and Emotion
Emotional factors, such as stress and anxiety, can play a significant role in TMJ symptoms. Stress can lead to muscle tension and heightened pain perception, amplifying the discomfort associated with TMJ issues. Managing stress through relaxation techniques and stress-reduction strategies can be an essential part of TMJ symptom management.
4 .Inadequate Treatment
Effective treatment is key to resolving TMJ symptoms. In some cases, individuals may not receive comprehensive or appropriate treatment for their TMJ issues. This can include the use of bite splints, physical therapy, or other therapeutic approaches that address the underlying causes of TMJ dysfunction. Ensuring that you have a well-rounded treatment plan tailored to your specific needs is vital.
Some individuals may experience heightened pain sensitivity, where the threshold for perceiving pain is lowered. This hypersensitivity can make even minor TMJ discomfort feel more intense and persistent. Exploring pain management techniques and therapies designed to address hypersensitivity can be beneficial.
6. Secondary Pain
TMJ issues can lead to secondary pain in surrounding areas, such as headaches, neck aches, and ear pain. These secondary pains can develop and perpetuate the cycle of TMJ discomfort. It’s essential to address not only the primary TMJ symptoms but also any related pains to achieve lasting relief.
NB: While persistent TMJ symptoms can be frustrating, it’s crucial to identify the factors that may be contributing to their longevity. By addressing these underlying causes and working closely with healthcare professionals, individuals can improve their chances of resolving prolonged TMJ flare-ups and achieving lasting relief. Remember that a personalized treatment plan tailored to your specific needs is often the most effective approach to managing TMJ discomfort.
Managing TMJ Symptoms
This involves a combination of self-care strategies, lifestyle modifications, and, in some cases, professional intervention:
A. Self-Care Practices:
Apply Ice or Heat
Applying ice or heat to the affected jaw area can help alleviate pain and reduce inflammation. Use a cold pack for acute pain and heat for muscle relaxation.
Choose softer foods that require less chewing, especially during flare-ups. Avoid hard, crunchy, or chewy foods that can strain the jaw joint.
Stress is a common exacerbating factor for TMJ symptoms. Practicing relaxation techniques like deep breathing, meditation, or yoga can help reduce stress and tension.
Gentle jaw exercises prescribed by a physical therapist or dentist can help improve jaw mobility and reduce muscle tension.
B. Lifestyle Modifications:
Avoid Trigger Habits
Identify and avoid habits that worsen TMJ symptoms, such as clenching, grinding teeth (bruxism), nail-biting, or chewing gum.
Maintain good posture to reduce strain on the neck, shoulders, and jaw muscles.
Limit Extreme Jaw Movements
Minimize yawning, singing loudly, or excessive talking, as these actions can strain the jaw.
Be gentle when brushing your teeth and avoid opening your mouth too wide. Consider using a smaller toothbrush to prevent excessive jaw movement.
C. Professional Intervention:
Dentists often recommend the use of dental appliances, such as bite splints or mouthguards, to help alleviate TMJ symptoms. These devices can help reduce clenching and grinding and provide relief.
Physical therapists with expertise in TMJ disorders can teach you exercises and techniques to improve jaw function and reduce pain.
In some cases, pain relievers, muscle relaxants, or anti-inflammatory medications may be prescribed to manage pain and inflammation.
In severe cases of TMJ disorders, injections of corticosteroids or Botox into the jaw joint can provide temporary relief from pain and muscle spasms.
Surgery is typically considered a last resort and is reserved for severe cases of TMJ disorders when conservative treatments have been ineffective.
D. Stress Management:
Reducing stress through various techniques, such as mindfulness, biofeedback, or counseling, can help alleviate TMJ symptoms as stress often exacerbates the condition.
E. TMJ-Specific Exercises:
Gentle stretching exercises prescribed by a healthcare professional can help improve jaw mobility and relieve muscle tension.
These exercises involve gently resisting the opening and closing of your jaw using your hand, helping to strengthen the jaw muscles.
Adjusting Your Lifestyle to Manage Flare ups
Making thoughtful lifestyle changes can help minimize flare triggers while your jaw hopefully calms down. You may need to:
- Start a soft foods diet to give jaw muscles a rest. Avoid chewing gum.
- Apply moist heat packs to increase blood flow and reduce spasms.
- Exercise, meditate, improve sleep habits to decrease flare-inducing stress.
- Postpone dental treatments until flare is under control.
- Find alternative communication if talking worsens pain.
- Track symptoms to identify and avoid triggers.
- Maintain good posture and ergonomics to alleviate jaw strain.
Seek Professional Treatment
Work closely with your dentist, doctor, and physical therapist to attack the prolonged flare from all angles:
- Consider bite splint therapy to alleviate pressure on the jaw.
- Try anti-inflammatory medications or injections to interrupt inflammation.
- Get fitted for physical therapy to improve function, reduce tension and spasms.
- Discuss muscle relaxants or pain medications to help break the pain cycle.
- Explore trigger point injections, dry needling, or massage for tight muscles.
- Ask about joint injections, nerve blocks, or radiofrequency ablation for severe arthritis.
- Look into cognitive behavioral therapy, biofeedback, or mindfulness for pain psychology.
- Seek a second opinion from a TMJ specialist if symptoms persist despite treatment.
Coping With the Uncertainty
Give your fluctuating symptoms and frustration space:
- Mourn the loss of your healthy jaw – it’s only natural to feel upset.
- Celebrate small wins and milestones – a few pain-free hours or a walk without clenching.
- Communicate challenges to your support system for understanding.
- Remain diligent yet patient with treatment – pace yourself through setbacks.
Months of unrelenting TMJ symptoms can be demoralizing. But persevere through the pain, lean on your care team, and be open to modifying approaches until you find your path to lasting relief.
It’s important to consult with a healthcare professional, preferably a dentist or oral specialist, to determine the best course of action for managing your specific TMJ symptoms. TMJ treatment plans should be tailored to your individual needs and may include a combination of the strategies mentioned above. With proper management, many people can find relief from TMJ-related discomfort and improve their overall quality of life.