It is estimated that 10 million Americans suffer from TMJ syndrome, a condition in which the temporomandibular joint does not function properly. This is the joint that connects the temporal bone (the bone that forms the sides of the scull) with the mandible (the jaw bone). We use this joint more frequently than most of the other joints in our bodies. Every time we talk, chew, bite down, or swallow we put the TMJ to work. This condition produces pain in the muscles and joints of the jaw that can radiate to the face, neck, and head and even the shoulders. There also may be difficulty opening the mouth all the way; or clicking and popping noises when chewing, yawning, kissing or moving the joint. The most common cause of TMJ is a poor alignment of teeth, combined with grinding or clenching of the teeth usually due to stress. Gum chewing can make this problem even worse. 

More Causes 

Injury to the joint, known as TMJ dysfunction, is caused by two events: overuse of the joint, and favoring one side of the mouth when chewing and biting down. Overuse usually applies to clenchers and grinders -- people who tend to clench their jaws tightly together for a variety reasons, primarily stress. Some people grind their teeth while sleeping and are totally unaware they are doing this. Gum chewers, who constantly work the joint, tend to be susceptible to TMJ dysfunction . By chewing on only one side of the mouth, undue stress is put on that side's temporomandibular joint. This does not allow for even distribution of force applied to the joint and pain will eventually develop. The same happens to people who have "improper bites," meaning their teeth do not fit together correctly causing one side of the mouth to close first when biting down and chewing. 

Feel Your Joint 

You can locate the temporomandibular joint by placing your finger on that triangle of skin in the front of your ear and then moving it a tiny bit forward. You should be able to feel a small depression between bones there. Now open and close your mouth a few times to feel the motion of the joint. If this hurts, you most likely have TMJ dysfunction. Don't worry, if the pain there is bad, you may want to consult your Dentist. 

There Is Help For TMJ Syndrome 

Luckily, there are a few things you can do to alleviate the pain and possibly take care of it altogether without seeing a doctor. To reduce the amount of wear and injury to the joint, chew evenly (left vs. right); stop chewing gum; avoid hard chewy foods, and stop clenching, or grinding your teeth. To aid the healing processes, apply a heating pad (or some form of heat) for 20 minutes at least twice a day. Two aspirin or ibuprofen tablets can help reduce inflammation. Don't use them everyday; if the pain is that bad, see your dentist. If pain persists after a few weeks, or if it is already unbearable, you should see your dentist who can check the alignment of your teeth. Most cases of TMJ dysfunction can be taken care of by either readjusting a patient's bite or by fitting him or her with a mouth-piece. A special mouth-piece is made to be worn at night to prevent clenching and compression of the joint. This also may help correct the bite. Your dentist is qualified to do both of these procedures.

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