An abbreviation for the temporomandibular joints, which connect the lower jaw (or mandible) to the temporal bones at each side of the head. TMJ disorders—which can cause complications such as headaches, ear pain, bite problems, and locked jaws—affect an estimated 10 million Americans.

TMJ disorders may be caused by injury, such as a heavy blow to the jaw; age-related wear and tear; regular gum chewing; or teeth grinding, teeth clenching, or bad bite alignment. Symptoms may include radiating pain in the jaw muscles, face, or neck; stiffness in the jaw muscles; locking or restricted motion of the jaw; painful clicking, popping, or grating in the jaw joint while opening or closing; and changes in the way the upper and lower teeth come together. TMJ disorders may also cause headaches, earaches, dizziness, and hearing problems.

Pain from TMJ disorders usually goes away with little or no treatment. If pain or other troubling symptoms persist, conservative, noninvasive treatments should be tried first, such as eating only soft foods, avoiding yawning or chewing gum, applying ice packs, and taking over-the-counter pain relievers. For stress-related TMJ pain, stress reduction techniques may be useful. Doctors may also prescribe medications to relax jaw muscles and recommend physical therapy that stretches and relaxes the muscles. Oral appliances (splints or bite plates) can also be placed over the upper or lower teeth to reduce clenching or grinding.

This column is written by Robert S. Dinsmoor, a medical writer and editor based in Massachusetts.

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