As an orofacial pain specialist, patients come to me when they’re suffering from the painful symptoms of a temporomandibular disorder, which you may know as TMJ. TMJ refers to the temporomandibular joint, the joint that enables you to open and close your mouth. Many new patients who come to my office have been wearing a standard dental night guard (sometimes called an oral appliance, occlusal splint, or mouth guard) while they sleep, but their symptoms are not improving or even getting worse. Before I explain which type of dental night guard is right for you, I want to make sure you understand TMJ and its causes.
First, What Causes TMJ?
Symptoms of jaw (TMJ) problems often arise due to sleep bruxism, a condition characterized by constantly grinding or clenching your teeth during sleep. Sleep bruxism affects about 10% of adults and up to 15% of children.
The American Dental Association has been surveying dentists about TMJ since the beginning of the pandemic. More than 70% report a significant increase of patients who are grinding and clenching their teeth both during sleep and while awake (called awake bruxism) – many of whom never had the issue before. Some patients even have cracked or broken teeth as a result of bruxing. Bruxism is thought to be related to several risk factors, including high-stress levels – so it comes as no surprise that this increase coincides with the pandemic.
How To Determine Which Type of Dental Night Guard Is Right For You
If you’re like many people, your dentist may have informed you that your teeth are becoming flat and worn-down because of grinding and clenching while you’re asleep. Your dentist may have recommended you start wearing a dental night guard while you sleep, or you may have already purchased one over-the-counter at your pharmacy.
If this sounds familiar, the standard type of night guard made by your dentist is probably adequate. However, over-the-counter night guards must be used with caution and for a limited amount of time because they can cause your teeth to shift.
However, if you’re one of those people who have a sense that something’s wrong because your teeth are sore, or your jaw muscles feel tight when you wake up in the morning, or if you have any of the symptoms listed below, a standard guard made by your dentist or an over-the-counter night guard you buy at a pharmacy is probably not the dental night guard that’s right for you.
All Dental Night Guards Are Not The Same
TMJ problems often involve the structures of your temporomandibular joints and usually require more evaluation and different types of dental night guards for your specific problem. If you suffer from any of the TMJ symptoms below, a standard dental night guard will likely not address your specific problem and could even make your problems worse.
Symptoms of TMJ:
- Difficulty opening your mouth
- Pain (beyond soreness or discomfort) when opening/closing your mouth
- Jaw pain when you eat
- Clicking or popping in your jaw during movement
- A sense that your jaw is locked
- A feeling that your bite is “off”
- Daily pain and tension in your face
- Headaches when you wake up
- Tension or pain in your neck
Like other joint systems in your body, TM joint problems are orthopedic problems. There are ligaments that support your jaw joints and shock-absorbing discs that cushion them. And, there’s also a lubrication system that keeps your TMJs moist and nourished. These all can become compromised due to teeth grinding and clenching, whether it happens while you’re asleep, during the day, or both.
The result is often injury to your TMJs resulting in sprains, instability and painful inflammation. Sometimes, the pressure of grinding and clenching can even cause one of your shock-absorbing discs to change and cause joint noises, lockjaw and pain.
What To Do Next
Your next step is to make an appointment with an orofacial pain specialist. An orofacial pain specialist will likely provide you with a clear understanding of your problem (a specific diagnosis beyond “you have TMJ.”). And explain why your jaw muscles and joints are in trouble and what treatments are available in addition to a dental night guard. Many factors can give rise to a TMJ problem, so you will likely be asked questions about your medical health, mental health, sleep, dental history, and about you as a person.
Based on the information gathered and an examination, there’s a good chance your orofacial pain specialist will fabricate a dental night guard that’s right for you – designed to address your specific orthopedic problem – not just to protect your teeth. Factors like the thickness of the night guard, its surface (flat or designed to prevent shifting of the lower jaw), its use on the upper or lower teeth, and where the support is provided are just some of the factors that will be considered.
To find an orofacial pain specialist in your area, ask your dentist for a referral or check the directory at the American Academy of Orofacial Pain website.
Your Dental Night Guard Needs To Be Monitored
A diagnosis beyond “You have TMJ” is essential in designing a night guard that will reduce strain and injury to your jaw muscles and tendons, joint ligaments, shock-absorbing discs and lubrication systems. Here’s the most important thing to understand: regardless of whether your dental night guard was designed by your dentist or an orofacial pain specialist, it will not stop your bruxism. When properly designed, your night guard will instead reduce the impact on your teeth, muscles and TMJs caused by your grinding and clenching. In essence, it lets you clench or grind in a “better neighborhood” with the goal of keeping more injury from occurring while you work on reducing the risk factors that caused your jaw to be in trouble in the first place.
And, because a well-constructed dental night guard redistributes force, it must be monitored and adjusted while healing occurs and your symptoms change. It’s essential to go in for regularly scheduled reassessments and modifications to maximize the potential for treatment to be successful.
So, Which Type Of Dental Night Guard Is Right For You?
If you wake up with any of the TMJ symptoms above – even if you’ve been wearing a dental night guard, do not give up hope! A more specific diagnosis, a better understanding of why you have the problem, and a night guard designed to address your individual symptoms may well be the answer. Based upon the nature of your problem, more comprehensive care is usually part of the plan, which may include exercises, stress-reducing activities such as mediation or yoga, medication, dry needling and trigger point injections, Botox injections or joint injections. These decisions are best made by an orofacial pain specialist.
Learn more about TMJ and bruxism here