Thanks to the temporomandibular joints (TMJ), located on each side of the head, we are able to chew food, speak, swallow and yawn without really thinking about it. But, according to an estimate by the National Institute of Dental Craniofacial Research (NIDCR), over 10 million people in the U.S. have a problem with these joints, so if any of your employees have difficulty opening their mouth or are complaining of jaw pain, they may be dealing with a TMJ disorder.
Not only does this joint move your lower jaw up and down, it also moves it side to side. These movements are controlled by ligaments and muscles attached to the bone. A soft disc, located between the ball and socket of the joint, absorbs forces and keeps the movements smooth. But, because this is a complex joint, complications resulting in pain or soreness can occasionally develop.
Types and Causes of TMJ Disorders
Conditions with this joint fall into three categories:
- Myofascial pain, involving the muscles that control the movements of the jaw
- Internal injury or displacement of the disc, dislocated jaw or an injury to the condyle portion of the jaw bone
- Arthritis or any degenerative/inflammatory joint disease that affects the joint
While trauma can be a clear reason for joint problems, the NIDCR says that most times the cause is not so obvious. Current research disputes the notion that a bad bite or orthodontic treatment leads to jaw disorders. However, there may be a link between female hormones and problems with this joint, which could explain why this disorder is more common in women.
Signs and Symptoms
Discomfort when chewing or moving the jaw is the most frequent symptom of this disorder. Pain can radiate to the face, jaw or neck area, and the jaw muscles may feel stiff, while another indication is limited movement or locking of the jaw. Jaw noises or clicking, when no pain is present, is common and doesn’t necessarily lead to problems. However, popping or clicking accompanied by pain could be a sign that something is amiss with the joint, as can a change in the way your bottom and lower teeth fit together. If any of your employees have been experiencing these types of symptoms, they should talk to their dentist or consult their doctor to rule out other medical conditions like headaches, ear or sinus infections or facial neuralgias that could be causing their pain.
Treating Jaw Pain
With no acceptable standard tests available, diagnosing TMJ disorders is difficult. Because it is difficult to conclusively determine the exact cause of joint pain, treatment becomes challenging. This is why experts recommend that doctors and dentists approach these problems with not only conservative treatments, but with therapies that do not involve surgery or invade the joint or the tissues around it.
Pain medications and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs can provide some relief, and some dentists recommend splints to be worn for a short period of time. Additionally, there’s a lot your employees can do to ease their painful symptoms, such as eating soft foods, applying ice packs and avoiding extreme jaw movements, like yawning widely, singing loudly or chewing gum. Many dentists refer their patients with jaw problems to a physical therapist, who may suggest exercises that can provide relief. Learning stress-reducing techniques is also beneficial when dealing with facial pain.
It’s important to let your employees know that most dental plans exclude coverage for jaw treatments because they largely have not been proven to be effective. However, their medical coverage will likely cover any necessary physical therapy.
The great news about this disorder is that, in most instances, it’s a temporary problem, and simple treatments are all that most people need. If you have an employee who is suffering from facial or joint pain, always recommend that they see their doctor or dentist as soon as possible.