Tinnitus (ringing in the ears) is largely associated with age- or noise-related hearing loss. Mounting evidence has found that, in a smaller number of cases, temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorders may be a root cause of tinnitus instead of hearing loss.

People with subjective tinnitus hear disquieting sounds, such as ringing, buzzing, and humming, that are imperceptible to others. This condition becomes more common as people age and begin to lose their hearing.

In contrast, tinnitus associated with TMJ disorders typically affects a younger demographic. It’s also more common in people who were assigned female at birth than those who were assigned male at birth.

In this article, we explore the connection between tinnitus and TMJ disorders. We also discuss potential treatments that may provide relief for both conditions.

TMJs connect your lower jaw (mandible) to your skull on both sides of your face. These joints are located directly in front of your ears. Your TMJs support the jaw muscles needed for eating, yawning, and speaking.

Causes of TMJ disorders

TMJ disorders are caused by inflammation or irritation of the ligaments and muscles surrounding the joints.

Potential causes include:

Symptoms of TMJ disorders

Symptoms of TMJ disorders include:

  • clicking or popping sound in jaw
  • pain in the jaw and ear
  • headache
  • difficulty opening your mouth
  • jaws that lock in an open or closed position

A 2018 systematic review and meta-analysis of multiple studies found that the prevalence of tinnitus was higher in people with TMJ disorders than in people without TMJ disorders. This may be due to the proximity of the inner ear to the TMJ.

A part in the inner ear called the cochlea transforms sound waves into electrical impulses that the brain translates into recognizable sounds. Damage to the hair cells in the cochlea is a catalyst for tinnitus.

Because the cochlea is located next to the temporomandibular joint, irritation and inflammation in the joint may damage the cochlea and other parts of the inner ear. This may cause subjective tinnitus.

Subjective vs objective tinnitus

Subjective tinnitus is the most common form of tinnitus. Noises are heard only by a person with tinnitus and are not generated by an exterior sound source.

Objective tinnitus is a rarer form of tinnitus. The sounds are typically caused by internal circulatory functions (blood flow) or defects in the structures of the ear. The sounds may be loud enough to be heard by another person.

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A 2019 research study found that TMJ and tinnitus often occur together in people who were assigned female at birth and who are younger than the average tinnitus patient.

Tinnitus in this group tends to be severe and accompanied by pain, pressure, and high levels of stress.

Accompanying symptoms include:

  • dizziness
  • headache
  • vertigo
  • neck pain
  • poor quality of life

Tinnitus related to TMJ disorders is sometimes referred to as a type of somatic tinnitus. Somatic tinnitus is defined as tinnitus that’s caused by a musculoskeletal problem.

Researchers involved in a 2019 study noted that people with tinnitus and TMJ disorders might make up a specific tinnitus subtype. Their reasoning was based on this group’s responsiveness to specific treatments.

A 2012 study noted that people with tinnitus and TMJ disorders were able to reduce tinnitus symptoms through movements of the head and jaw. Music and sound stimulation also had a beneficial effect.

Research data from as far back as 1997 found that treating TMJ disorders helps alleviate tinnitus in people with both conditions. However, recent studies suggest more research is needed to confirm this connection.

Even so, the American Tinnitus Association is in favor of treating TMJ disorders to alleviate tinnitus that’s caused by problems with the joint.

Possible treatments for TMJ disorders

There are several types of treatments for TMJ disorders that may help alleviate both tinnitus and jaw pain. These include:

TMJ disorders and tinnitus are challenging conditions that can negatively affect your quality of life. Whether you have TMJ disorders or symptoms of tinnitus in one or both ears, talk with a doctor. This is especially important if you’re having difficulty keeping up with daily activities, or if you feel anxious or depressed.

Treatments exist for both tinnitus and TMJ disorders.

TMJ disorders are often treated by a dental professional. Talk with your current healthcare professional about the type of specialist who’s best suited to treat your symptoms.

Research suggests TMJ disorders are a cause of tinnitus in some instances. People who have both conditions tend to be younger than the average tinnitus patient.

People assigned female at birth also seem to be more affected by TMJ disorders and accompanying tinnitus than people assigned male at birth.

When tinnitus is caused by TMJ disorders, treatments specific to this cause may help alleviate symptoms.

Talk with your doctor or dentist about potential treatments and which may be best suited for you.