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If “snap,” “crackle” and “pop” aren’t coming from your cereal, it may be from your temporomandibular joint (TMJ). TMJ complications affect over 10 million people, according to the National Institute of Craniofacial Research (NICR), and it’s more of an issue for women than men. Although it may be alarming, you can effectively determine if your clicking jaw is just a temporary annoyance or a sign of a more advanced temporomandibular joint disorder (TMD).

How the TMJ Works

The temporomandibular joint can move side to side, as well as backwards and forward, making it one of the most complex joints in your body. Connecting your lower jaw to the temporal bones at the side of your head, the joint allows you the range of motion needed to speak, yawn and chew food. Facial muscles attached to this joint control these movements, while a soft cartilage disc within the joint socket absorbs massive amounts of pressure so no single motion does any damage.

What Causes TMD

Trauma, dislocation or a displaced disc can all contribute to an audible jaw disorder, but the exact cause of TMD is often unknown. Nonetheless, clenching and grinding can cause pain and tightness in the facial muscles – especially if the teeth are not in alignment – whereas various types of arthritis can affect the joint itself. Researchers feel that women may be more susceptible to TMD in part because the collagen holding the disk in the socket is anatomically different in women.

Symptoms of TMD

The most common symptom of TMD is a pain in the joint itself or the chewing muscles that attach to it. Other signs include locking of the jaw or restricted movement, changes in the way your teeth come together and recurring headaches. A painful grinding or popping in your joint can be a warning, of course, but a clicking sound in your jaw – or limited movement “without pain” – isn’t always an indication of a TMJ problem, nor does it need treatment.

For most people, symptoms are mild and often disappear spontaneously. For others, the pain can be persistent and debilitating. Whenever you experience a sign of TMD, see your dentist as soon as you can.

Diagnosing It

These signs are what your dentist considers when taking a detailed dental and medical history. He or she will ask for specifics concerning your symptoms and perform a careful examination that includes observing the movement of your jaw and feel for tightness or tenderness in the facial muscles. A panoramic X-ray can also help reveal or rule out a serious joint issue. Although, if more detail is needed, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or a cat scan (CT) may be necessary. Your dentist is ultimately looking to exclude other causes of discomfort before making a diagnosis. These include sinus infections, toothaches, earaches, arthritis and even some neurological conditions.

Getting Relief

Custom bite guards or splints, fabricated to stabilize your bite, are one of the most common remedies. Because most cases of TMD are temporary in nature, taking the following steps to relieve discomfort may be just the thing:

  • Eat soft foods.
  • Alternate applying ice and moist heat on your joint.
  • Avoid excessive jaw movements – wide yawning, chewing gum or taking big bites of tall sandwiches.
  • Practice stress-reducing techniques.
  • Follow gentle stretching exercises, as suggested by your dentist or physical therapist.
  • Use over-the-counter pain or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications as directed by your dentist or doctor.

Keeping Your TMJ Healthy

Good oral health means brushing your teeth with fluoride toothpaste and seeing your dentist regularly for cleanings. Keep in mind that not all jaw pain comes from overextension; you can keep your TM joint in good health by avoiding excessive jaw movements or biting down on hard objects, too. If you clench or grind your teeth at night, wearing a mouthguard while you sleep can also help prevent symptoms of TMD.

And remember, if you do experience a clicking jaw – with no pain – it’s probably not TMD. But it’s still a good idea to mention your noisy jaw at your next checkup.