Roughly 12 percent of the population in the United States is affected by Temporomandibular Joint Dysfunction (colloquially known as TMD, TMJ, and/or TMJ Syndrome) at any given time. For those who might not know, TMJ is a set of conditions characterized by jaw pain in the jaw joint and areas surrounding the jaw. Depending on the severity, TMJ can affect a person’s ability to smile, chew, speak, swallow, and even breathe. In short, TMJ is highly complex and there does not appear to be an exact science when it comes to diagnosis and treatment.
I discovered I had TMJ in my late twenties, but did not fully understand what it was or what it meant for me. For years now, I have been suffering from jaw popping when I open my mouth, yawn, or even when I speak sometimes. There are days when I wake up with major pain in my jaw, while most of the time I don’t even notice it. There have been times when it hurt to chew my dinner, and other times when I could bite into a crispy apple without any inkling of pain. It’s almost as though my symptoms vary day-to-day.
In the summer of 2019, my dentist finally advised me to take action. Over the course of about a year, he noticed that my molars are being worn down, likely from grinding in my sleep. According to him, I have a combination of sleep grinding and TMJ, which is causing the popping in my jaw, as well as a host of dental issues, including gum recession, teeth sensitivity, worn down molars, and more. My dentist decided to put me on a treatment plan to address these dental health issues and hopefully resolve some of my symptoms in time.
Here is how I am living with TMJ in my twenties:
1. I assess how often my teeth are clenched together.
Apparently, a big part of my problem is that I am unknowingly clenching my teeth through the day and while asleep. I learned from my dental hygienist that unless you’re chewing something, your teeth actually should not touch. At rest, there should be a slight gap between your top row and bottom row of teeth, so that your aren’t subconsciously clenching.
As it turns out, I discovered I clench all the time. At work I have caught myself clenching while writing emails. At night I have woken myself up from clenching my teeth together in my sleep. In short, it’s a constant problem that I am still trying to fix.
My biggest solution in remedying this has been checking in with myself throughout the day. At a random point in time I stop what I am doing and assess whether or not I am clenching. This practice has made me much more mindful of how often I clench, and is holding me accountable to stop doing it habitually.
2. I treat my jaw pain on an as-needed basis.
There have been times when my jaw pain was excruciating. I woke up one morning and had pain all the way up to my ear. Convinced I had an ear infection, I paid a visit to my doctor to seek treatment. She told me my ear was fine, and that it was likely TMJ. Knowing better now, I treat my jaw pain first before assuming it is something else.
When it’s really bad, I take ibuprofen, use an ice pack, and eat soft foods so that chewing doesn’t hurt. My dentist recommended heat packs as well, which I have not yet had to use, but will keep in my back pocket as a tip. The pain has actually subsided quite a bit since I started paying more attention to my clenching habits, too!
3. I wear a night guard when sleeping.
It’s not the most attractive thing in the world, and luckily my fiancé doesn’t mind, but I do wear a night guard at night to make sure my clenching and grinding habits are kept at bay.
If you’ve ever had braces, you likely had retainers made for you when your braces came off. Well, I did too, but my grinding was so intense that I actually punctured holes in the plastic! My dentist assessed my retainers and decided I needed something with better protection.
He took a mold of my teeth and made me a custom night guard for my top row, and a regular plastic retainer for my bottom row. The idea here is that they will keep my teeth straight, while also creating a thicker barrier between my teeth. Even if I do grind at night, the night guard will be thick enough to withstand the pressure.
So far this practice has seemed to help, since I have a hard time controlling my grinding and clenching habits when I am asleep. In time, I hope to find that my teeth are less sensitive and that I do not have any additional wear on my molars.
In the little time I have been dealing with it, I’ve learned that TMJ is a tricky thing. There is no singular source for why TMJ affects certain individuals or even how to treat it. There are so many different symptoms people suffer from, causes of TMJ, and ways to live with it.
This is just a snapshot of my experience so far, and I hope it is helpful to you! If you are suffering from jaw pain and you suspect you might have TMJ, please seek help from a medical professional. In my experience, my dentist was the person to work with to help find ways to ease my symptoms. Best of luck to you if you’re facing TMJ!