When a patient calls in and says, “I think I have TMJ” the office staff could possibly be quite flip. More than likely such a response would never happen. Realistically, what a person is trying to say is he or she is having a TMJ problem, not that they have a Temporomandibular Joint (TMJ). This is a bit of a running joke at any TMJ specialty office.
But now let’s be realistic. If a potential patient reports that they have ‘TMJ,’ they really are just trying to say that their jaw is a problem, and it might need some help. The way to help such a person is to measure how big they can open their mouth, and then palpate the various muscles that attach to the TM joint. This goes a long way in diagnosing the problem. In many cases, it is necessary to further that diagnosis by ordering an MRI to determine what the articular discs are doing in the jaw joints. The articular discs are the cartilage that covers the top of the jaw bones and protects the joints from going bone on bone, which really can hurt badly.
In addition, a specialty X-ray called a CBCT must be done to further determine if the bones of the skull are out of alignment. So first, the MRI, then the CBCT to figure out what is really going on in the joints. At this point, a discussion must be done about how best to treat the problem(s). Each person has unique symptoms and determining the best appliance is critical. Often, wearing an appliance or an appliance for each arch in the mouth works to ‘decompress’ the joints. This is very effective. The appliance(s) must be worn for a year or more in order to be effective. Then a new MRI and X-ray must be done to see if the discs have moved or are moving back where they should be.
Sometimes, unfortunately, the disc is either damaged or is not moving back. At this point, it may be necessary to do surgery to help move the discs back into place or remove the damaged disc. Other therapy options to help with the symptom management are prolotherapy, BOTOX®, or even stem cell therapy to help. Surgery is always the last-ditch option because it is more invasive than any other choice. It is, however, very effective and can provide much needed relief to that person who has suffered for many years. The other options, often called the ‘injectables’, help to lubricate the joints so the displaced discs have a chance to move back where they need to be. Sometimes this works quite well, other times not so much because they are not actually fixing the underlying problem.
So, if you do indeed have ‘TMJ’ problems then you most likely have other body pain or symptoms as well. The TM joint can be a problem and you will want to fix it. If so, see the right doctor, analyze the problem, and treat this before it becomes more difficult.