The exact cause of temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorders is largely unknown. Some cases begin after an injury, while others may have more to do with a mix of joint structure, genetics, and stress.

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Temporomandibular joint disorders, also referred to as TMJ or TMD, affect the movement of the jaw. A person may experience clicking or popping of the jaw, jaw pain or headache, or trouble opening the mouth. TMJ is typically not considered serious and may even heal on its own over time.

Here’s what you need to know about TMJ, what causes it, and what the outlook is for people who deal with this condition.

Learn more about temporomandibular joint disorders.

Most of the time, the cause of TMJ is not easily identified. Symptoms may begin out of the blue for no clear reason.

A number of factors may contribute to developing TMJ. Researchers say that injury to the jaw or temporomandibular joint is one of the more likely causes. Beyond that, a person’s family history (genetics), psychological stress, and even jaw structure may play a role in its development.

Contrary to what you may have heard, researchers do not believe that a bad bite or braces cause TMJ.

Up to 70% of people may experience symptoms of TMJ. That said, only between 5% and 12% of people seek medical attention for their symptoms.

The primary risk factors for TMJ include being between 20 to 40 years old and being female. Researchers have not identified any specific risk factors for developing chronic TMJ.

You cannot necessarily prevent TMJ. Its cause is unknown in many people. For others, it may result from an unexpected injury. That said, you may reduce your symptoms by stretching the jaw muscles, trying physical therapy, and reducing your level of stress.

In certain cases related to bruxism, you may work with your doctor or dentist to get a mouthguard or muscle relaxants to prevent tooth grinding during sleep.

The outlook for TMJ is good for between 50% and 90% of people. Symptoms may resolve over time with no treatment for up to 40% of people. Even serious cases may respond well to conservative treatment, like stretching, a soft foods diet, and rest.

There are certain actions that may make your TMJ worse. If you’re experiencing symptoms, avoid doing the following:

  • chewing gum, pen tops, or other items
  • biting food with your front teeth
  • yawning with your mouth open wide
  • biting your nails
  • clenching your jaw unless eating
  • grinding your teeth

TMJ is not directly caused by stress, but it may result from tensing the jaw, grinding your teeth, or other actions related to your stress. As a result, experts share that relaxation techniques and even seeing a psychologist to address stress may improve your symptoms.

Over time, some people may experience worsened symptoms with their TMJ. They may have trouble eating, speaking, or yawning. Some may develop neck and back pain or numbness/tingling in the fingers.

Other complications may be related to the initial injury that caused the TMJ or simply result from wear on the jaw.

In TMJ caused by bruxism, complications may include damage to teeth, headaches, and sleep issues.

Again, most cases of TMJ get better without medical treatment. There are simple things you can do at home to help yourself feel better. If your condition does not improve or you notice new symptoms, make an appointment with your doctor.

Ways to cope:

Is TMJ permanent?

It depends on the individual. Some people may develop chronic or severe TMJ, rarely needing surgery. Others may be able to cure it with stress reduction, physical therapy, or other conservative measures.

What are the main symptoms of TMJ?

Symptoms may include pain or swelling at the jaw joint along with stiffness or limited mobility of the joint. Clicking, popping, and a change in bite are also common. Some people may even experience dizziness, tinnitus, or difficulty hearing.

When should I see a doctor for TMJ?

If your symptoms become severe or start interfering with your everyday life, make an appointment with your doctor.

Again, most individuals with TMJ may get better without treatment, but your doctor can suggest prescriptions and other medical or at-home treatments to help.

TMJ is a common condition, yet relatively few people seek medical care for their symptoms.

In severe cases, your doctor may suggest things like surgery or TMJ implants. The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research explains, however, that extreme measures are not often necessary or helpful unless there’s significant damage to the jaw.

Relief may be as simple as eating softer foods, reducing stress, and taking OTC pain medications.