While health care providers can identify many symptoms associated with TMJ disorders, the root cause is often not so obvious. In fact, for many people, the symptoms may seem to appear without reason or warning. According to the Merck Manual, temporomandibular joint disorder (TMD) is typically caused by some combination of muscle tension and issues with the anatomy of the joint. Here’s a look at some of the most common underlying factors that may lead to TMD.
Degenerative Joint Disease
Research indicates there may be a link between TMD and various forms of arthritis. When arthritis, or joint inflammation, affects the jawbone, it can spread to the temporomandibular joint and cause changes in your bite as well as misaligned teeth, two key symptoms. Joint diseases that can impact the joint include osteoarthritis, which commonly causes cartilage degeneration in people over 50; and rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease.
Bruxism—another word for grinding or clenching your teeth—may be one of the most common TMJ triggers. When you clench your teeth and tighten your jaw muscles, it can pull them out of alignment, leading to pain and inflammation. This can happen while asleep as well as unconsciously during the day, often as a reaction to stress. To lessen the impact of nighttime grinding, a mouth guard may be something to consider.
Although you wouldn’t necessarily link stress and temporomandibular joint disorders—some studies suggest there may be a correlation, especially when stress manifests physically as muscle tightness, jaw clenching and teeth grinding (bruxism).
Because the disorders are more prevalent in women than men, some researchers are exploring the link between estrogen imbalances and the jaw pain associated with TMJ disorders. Other studies indicate that women who take birth control pills or hormone replacement drugs are more likely to experience TMD.
Making the Diagnosis
Even if your dentist or doctor is fairly certain you have a TMJ disorder, right now there are no standard tests available to definitively make a diagnosis. Typically, health care providers examine the head, neck, face and jaw, and get an understanding of the patient’s symptoms as well as a detailed medical and dental history. Sometimes X-rays or other imaging test may be recommended. Experiencing tooth or jaw pain? Dentistry.com can help you find a dentist near you.
Medically reviewed by Dr. Natalie Pennington, DDS, January 2019