Among the litany of aches, pains and declines that come with each passing year, add diminished jaw strength to the list. Yes, your trusty jaw that has let you talk up a storm and eat with abandon all these years may start to betray you as the joints that connect jaw to skull starts to deteriorate. This can lead to a distressing condition called Tempromandibular Joint Disorder – commonly referred to as TMJ (or sometimes TMD).
Although younger folks can certainly experience it, the chances of developing TMJ increase with age. A study in the Journal of Oral Research said that that TMJ afflicts one in three adults over the age of 60.
What exactly is TMJ?
Tempromandibular Joint Disorder develops when the minuscule shock-absorbing discs that allow for smooth jaw movement start to erode or shift out of position. A gradual loss of cartilage can further degenerate or be damaged by arthritis. This disc displacement can lead to a clicking or locking in the jaw joint along with pain in that area of the face. In time, TMJ can can cause chronic headaches, earaches, ringing in the ears, neck and shoulder tension, and difficulty with biting and chewing. All of this can affect one’s mood and quality of life, not to mention eating due to the jaw discomfort.
Various studies have shown that TMJ is more prevalent among older women, but a recent study has found that elderly men with TMJ tend to have more severe symptoms. Regardless of gender, existing dental issues such as missing teeth, bite conditions and poor oral health can all contribute to TMJ. Restorations like dental crowns and dentures can aggravate the tempromandibular joint if they’re not placed properly, and this dysfunctional bite can lead to TMJ.
Habits like chewing gum, a pencil or fingernails can cause tension in your jaw. Prolonged teeth grinding and clenching (called bruxism), misaligned bite conditions and injury can also be a factor in developing TMJ, but simple age-related wear and tear is what most seniors are dealing with. The side effects and symptoms usually grow more pronounced unless you seek treatment.
Treatments for TMJ
While there are certainly more serious ailments out there, make no mistake, the pain and discomfort of a TMJ disorder can be debilitating for some. Furthermore, as it can be difficult to eat and maintain healthy nutrition, it can lead to other health issues especially within the senior population.
Here are a few at-home approaches you can try to manage TMJ in the early stages.
- Use a Heat Pack
A hot water bottle or heating pad applied to the affected area of your jaw can help soothe pain from TMJ.
- Use an Ice Pack
On the flip side, you can try icing the jaw area as the cold can decrease swelling and inflammation that can cause TMJ pain.
- Eat a Soft Diet
If TMJ pain makes it challenging to eat, try to consume soft foods that don’t add stress to your jaw. For example, eat things like scrambled eggs, pasta, fish, steamed vegetables, quiche, soup, mashed potatoes, oatmeal, yogurt, smoothies, bananas, applesauce or ice cream. Avoid crunchy, chewy or hard foods that can overwork your jaw muscles and damage your joint. Raw carrots, apples, corn on the cob, nuts, ice, gum and hard candies are examples of what you should not eat if you have TMJ.
- Do Jaw Exercises
Certain exercises can help increase your jaw mobility and help with healing. For example, there’s a jaw relaxation technique where you touch your tongue to the roof of your mouth behind the upper front teeth, then open and close your mouth repeatedly. Chin tucks are another good exercises that gets blood flowing into the area. Hold them for three to five seconds, then release. Try some jaw resistance exercises, where you place your thumb under your chin to create some light pressure as you try to open your mouth. Doing some gentle side-to-side and back-to-front movements with your jaw can also loosen things up.
- Try Jaw Massage
If your TMJ is related to tightness and imbalance in the muscles due to clenching, manual manipulation and massage can help. The masseter muscle used for chewing is what becomes tense with TMJ. Gentle circular massage motions around the jaw joint can help relax the area. Kneading techniques help to unravel the ropey muscle fibers can bring some relief. You might want to consult with a chiropractor, physical therapist, massage therapist, osteopathic physician or neuromuscular dentist who specializes in TMJ for this kind of massage treatment.
- Use Over-the-Counter Analgesics
Anti-inflammatory medications like ibuprofen or muscle relaxants like naproxen can help alleviate the pain of TMJ. However, you don’t want to keep masking the pain. It is better to find therapies that can improve the situation rather than popping pills as a band aid solution.
- Get a Bite Guard
A prosthodontist is a dental practitioner who can help with TMJ discomfort. They can help you get fitted with an orthotic device like a bite guard or perhaps begin physical therapy, depending on the severity of your condition. For example, a custom-made splint can be made to fit over your lower or upper teeth. This acts like a cushion between your teeth to prevent you from clenching or grinding.
- Try TENS
Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation involves low-voltage electric shocks to cure pain. A battery-powered device delivers impulses through electrodes placed on your skin near the nerves that are trigger points to your pain. Some TMJ sufferers report success with TENS therapy.
- If All Else Fails, Surgery
As last resort, there is a surgery for TMJ is called arthroscopy. This open-joint surgical procedure is preformed by an oral and maxillofacial surgeon. It involves repositioning the tempromandibular joint and extracting inflamed tissue. In extreme cases, a total joint reconstruction may be in order.