Up to ¾ of Americans may experience at least one sign of a temporomandibular joint problem. Yes, that many! These signs can be anything from soreness of the jaw, popping, clicking, locking of the jaw, or migraine headaches. Does this mean that these symptoms need treatment? No. Experts in the field of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery from Mass General Hospital affilitated with Harvard School of Dental Medicine in Boston have indicated that only about 5% of patients with symptoms need treatment. In the vast majority of cases, less is more.
Most people who experience jaw symptoms will find that these symptoms come and go, ebb and wane over time and eventually go away on their own. Symptoms often increase with stress, and subside when the stress dissipates. If experiencing a symptom, often resting the jaw, avoiding excessive chewing such as gum chewing, avoiding yawning big, and avoiding putting undue pressure on the jaw by resting on a fist or sleeping on one’s side can help alleviate symptoms. Soft foods, massage of the muscles, and taking NSAIDs like Advil or Motrin can also help. It can take time (sometimes weeks) for symptoms to dissipate.
In practice I have noticed that quite often it is not a problem with the jaw joint per se, but soreness of the muscles around the jaw that occur due to grinding or clenching the teeth. If this is the case, a night guard or retainer that keeps the biting surfaces of the teeth apart will often help.
Popping or clicking noises in the jaw are very common, and often not associated with any pain. The noise comes from the moveable disk in the joint popping in and out of place as the jaw moves about. These noises often start or come about in the adolescent years, mostly in girls, and do not indicate that there is a problem with the joint. Generally, this is left alone. Many of us have popping and clicking in other joints in the body, but think very little of it. We get alarmed by noises in our heads because of the location so close to our ears, but in the vast majority of cases there is nothing ‘wrong’ with the joint.
Jane E. Brody article in the New York Times Feb 2, 2009 included the opinions of top oral surgeons in the field. Dr. Leonard Kaban, Chief of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery at Mass General Hospital in Boston, affilitated with Harvard School of Dental Medicine.