A temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder may remain symptomless for years before it becomes painful enough to seek medical attention. However, the disorder may also arise suddenly and cause acute, severe symptoms.
Common Symptoms of TMJ Disorders
TMJ disorders may affect one or both jaw joints. Sometimes, fewer symptoms may present on one side and more symptoms may present on the opposite side. Common symptoms of TMJ disorders are described below.
- Headache. Headaches of moderate to severe intensity are often the first and most common symptom of TMJ disorders. TMJ headaches may occur at least once (or more) per week and in most cases precede other TMJ disorder pains.1 Headaches may occur on both sides or affect only one side of the head. The common areas affected are the temples, forehead, behind the eye, and/or around the ear. Tenderness in the scalp and forehead muscles are also common.
- Jaw symptoms. Fatigue and soreness in the jaw and/or cheek muscles, deviation of the jaw to one side while opening the mouth, restricted mouth opening, stiffness, and/or a painful ache in the jaw joint commonly occur. Sometimes, jaw muscles, such as the masseter muscle may be swollen and tender, causing a slight bulge on the side of the face below the ear. TMJ sounds, such as clicking, popping, or grating may be present while opening and/or closing the mouth. In some cases, the jaw may lock, which means the mouth cannot be closed after it is opened, and manual assistance is needed to position the jaw back into a resting position.
- Facial pain. Facial pain in TMJ disorders may vary from a dull ache or lingering soreness to a severe stabbing sensation in the face or jaw. The pain is typically worse during morning or evening hours.
- Earache. Stuffiness/pressure and/or ringing sounds in the ears may be experienced in TMJ disorders. In severe cases, partial hearing loss, increased sensitivity to certain frequencies of sound (hyperacusis), and/or dizziness (vertigo) may be present.
- Neck and shoulder pain. Painful trigger points in the neck and shoulder muscles can elicit pain upon pressing. When pressed, the pain may occur at the region of the trigger point or may be referred to other areas of the neck, shoulder, head, and/or face.2
- Improper bite or malocclusion. TMJ disorders may result in malocclusion or the feeling of an improper bite or teeth that do not come together properly, such as an anterior open bite and unilateral posterior open bite.3 Pain in healthy back teeth may also be felt in some cases.
- Sinus pain. Pain in the maxillary sinus and/or other paranasal sinuses is a common symptom of TMJ disorders.
- Obstructive sleep apnea. Research indicates intermittent blockage of airflow during sleep is a common symptom of TMJ disorders and may result in disturbed sleep, however, the reason for this association has not been confirmed.4
The symptoms of TMJ disorders are aggravated by jaw movements from chewing, talking, yawning, chewing gum, bruxism (teeth grinding) and/or psychological factors, such as stress. The sustaining factor for pain in TMJ disorders is believed to be the pain-spasm-pain cycle, in which muscle spasm decreases blood flow, which causes pain, in turn leading to more spasm—and the cycle continues.
Less Common Symptoms of TMJ Disorders
Examples of less common symptoms of TMJ disorders include:
- Vision problems and/or redness in one or both eyes
- Sensitivity to light
- Swallowing difficulties
- Feeling of foreign body in the throat
Certain symptoms of TMJ disorders, such as headaches or neck pain without associated jaw pain may seem completely unrelated to the jaw complex. However, it is possible for such symptoms to originate from the TMJ and seeking medical attention can help initiate an effective treatment program for the underlying cause.