Note: This article explains how to evaluate yourself for TMJ, what you can do about it, and how to determine when you need to get some professional help.
This past year’s pandemic challenges have led more people to seek care for TMJ problems than ever before. In fact, you may be reading this article because you’ve had your first experience of TMJ during the past year.
If you suffer from these kinds of problems, there are some steps you can take to relieve your symptoms. But before you try to evaluate yourself for TMJ, you must first understand the risk factors that led to your jaw being in trouble in the first place.
As an orofacial pain specialist for the past 35 years, I have treated thousands of patients who came to me suffering from jaw problems. They usually arrive at my office with complaints of jaw pain or stiffness, headaches in their temples, or facial pain that, in some cases, is taking over their lives. Many have limited jaw opening, joint popping and/or cracking. Some even experience locked jaws upon waking up in the morning.
While a traumatic event such as a car accident or an underlying medical disorder or treatment can be the culprit, for most people a wide variety of risk factors can cause TMJ pain problems. It is my job to properly diagnose, identify the causes, help my patients cope with TMJ – and eventually, get better.
Before You Evaluate Yourself For TMJ, You Must Understand What TMJ Is
The most important thing to understand about TMJ problems is that they are orthopedic in nature. Just like any other muscle and joint structure in your body – knees and shoulders, for example – if they become overworked, sprained, fatigued or injured, pain and instability will arise. Your jaw muscles and jaw joints (TMJs) are no different. An orthopedic problem can’t be treated until what is causing the pain is identified. It’s the same for TMJ problems.
How To Evaluate Yourself For TMJ – Identify The Cause & Make Changes
TMJ problems can involve your muscles, joints or both. To evaluate yourself for TMJ joint problems, pay attention to whether the pain is in front of your ear when you move your jaw or touch the area and if your jaw joints click, pop and/or lock. If you can answer yes to both questions, you should not try to cure yourself. See a dentist with experience in TMJ care or a TMJ specialist in your area right away. (There’s a link at the bottom of this page to the American Academy of Orofacial Pain, where you can find a specialist in your area.)
To evaluate yourself for TMJ muscle problems, you would probably describe your symptoms as soreness, stiffness, spasms or achiness. If you push your fingers firmly along your jawline or into your temples, you will experience more pain than you expected. Your jaw motion may be limited but it’s not accompanied by joint clicking or popping sounds.
If you’ve determined your TMJ problem is of the muscle variety, your next step is to figure out why and how your muscles became so irritable in the first place. To do so, you’ll need to do a little investigating to find out what is happening in your life during the day and at night.
6 Daytime Behaviors & Postures That Could Be Causing Your TMJ Problems
Starting today, pay careful attention to your daytime behaviors and postures, particularly while you’re working. Working behaviors and postures are some of the leading causes of TMJ problems. And, working at home is a big reason for the considerable increase of people seeking care during the past year.
When you evaluate yourself for TMJ of the muscle variety, look for these six common daytime behaviors that could be causing your jaw or neck muscles to fatigued:
- Your head leans forward while you work at your computer.
- You consistently look down at your phone.
- You hold your breath or take shallow quick breaths with your mouth open.
- You brace your jaw muscles (but your teeth are not clenched).
- You often keep your teeth clenched.
- You bite your nails and/or cuticles, cheeks, lips or tongue.
Did you identify any of the six behaviors or postures above during your workday? If you said yes, believe it or not, that is good news! Because if you can start eliminating them right away. And there’s a pretty good chance you can start feeling better right away, too.
Start by paying attention to your breathing patterns. If you discover that you hold your breath or breathe shallowly, go online and search for “restful breathing techniques.” You’ll see a lot of results and almost any you choose will help. Also, take more breaks. And make some adjustments to your workstation to improve your head posture. (Here’s a helpful guide). Also, download a reminder app such as Time Out for Mac that will help you remember to take breaks.
5 Nighttime Factors That Could Be Causing Your TMJ Problems
An essential step in evaluating yourself for TMJ is identifying what is happening to your jaw muscles, jaw joints or neck muscles while you’re asleep. This, understandably, is not easy – but it’s definitely doable. If you consistently wake up with jaw or neck pain, tightness in your jaw, or headaches – you can assume one or more of the following four factors are present:
- Insomnia – You have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep.
- Fragmented Sleep – Your sleep is full of lots of small arousals. Your brain wakes you up numerous times during the night.
- Inadequate Sleep – You routinely get less than the recommended hours of sleep. (See the link at the bottom of this page to determine what is recommended for your age group).
- Bruxism – You clench and/or grind your teeth while you sleep.
- Breathing Problems – You struggle with breathing due to nasal or other airway restrictions while you sleep.
If you suspect factors 1, 2 or 3, try one or more of the following:
- Take melatonin at bedtime.
- Don’t drink coffee after noon.
- Don’t use your electronic devices late into the evening.
- Stop all work-related activities one hour before going to bed.
- Read a good book.
- Exercise in the morning instead of after work.
- Eat dinner earlier.
- Practice some breathing exercises before you get into bed.
- Try some gentle stretching or yoga before bed.
If you suspect factor 3 – Bruxism – this is for you:
If you wake up occasionally with sore teeth but nothing more severe than that, consider purchasing an over-the-counter oral appliance at your local pharmacy. (Note: there are many terms for oral appliances such as mouthguards, bite plates, and teeth protectors – they all mean pretty much the same thing.)
If your symptoms get better after wearing your over-the-counter oral appliance at night for several weeks, your next step is to visit your dentist to be fitted for a custom oral appliance. This is very important because wearing an oral appliance over a long period of time that is not custom-fitted can lead to complications such as shifting teeth, bite changes and even airway obstruction.
If your symptoms do not get better after wearing your over-the-counter oral appliance it’s time for you to get some professional help. Make an appointment with your dentist or an orofacial pain specialist. (See the link at the bottom of this page to the American Academy of Orofacial Pain to find an orofacial pain specialist).
If you suspect Factor 4 – Breathing Problems – here’s what to do:
If your self-evaluation for TMJ leads you to suspect you have a nighttime breathing problem – it may be sleep apnea and you must see a sleep professional right away. Your struggle to breathe at night is likely reducing airflow and causing your blood oxygen to lower. That places excess stress on your body.
You should opt for an overnight sleep evaluation monitored by a professional. (Link here to find a sleep center near you.) If the sleep evaluation indicates you do have a sleep breathing disorder such as apnea, there are many options for you after the sleep study. You may be told to sleep on your side, wear nasal strips, use a custom-made oral appliance, or lose weight. Many people find that a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine is a lifesaver. (Read: What Is CPAP?) In severe cases, nasal surgery, orthodontics, jaw advancement or another correction surgery may be the solution.
How To Evaluate Yourself For TMJ – In Conclusion
Let’s say you have been able to get your TMJ problems under control by changing one or more of the six daytime behaviors above. That is great. And even if your nighttime behaviors are of the Factors 1, 2, or 3 variety and you tried some of the simple solutions I recommend, there’s a chance you’re already feeling better.
TMJ problems, however, are often caused by several risk factors. For you, relief may only be achieved with a professional approach. Take a little bit of time to find a trained orofacial pain practitioner in your area and you should be able to get on the road to feeling better very soon.
American Academy Of Orofacial Pain (Look for a provider with Diplomate status)