Table of Content
How Long Does TMJ Last? (and How to Speed Up Your Recovery)
by Dylan Hao |
What’s the most overused and underappreciated joint in your body? If you didn’t guess the TMJ, you probably haven’t tried not using it for a whole day, the way someone with a TMJ disorder does.
Short for “temporomandibular joint,” the TMJ is a tiny, delicate, hinge-like body part that connects your jaw to your skull. It works every time you move your jaw, whether chewing, yawning, talking, or adjusting your mouth.
This joint can take a lot of wear and tear before it starts asking for a break. But if you ignore the signs that your TMJ is struggling and let it rest early, you could end up with long-term pain from a TMJ disorder.
How long will this pain last, and can you do anything to speed up your recovery?
TMJ Disorders and You
So you’ve been diagnosed with a TMJ disorder (or you’re pretty sure that’s what you have). As with any medical condition, you want to know what’s happening in your body!
The thing to understand about a TMJ disorder, or TMD, is that there are various types of them. They all fall under the category of a TMD because they involve the temporomandibular joints — the two joints that keep your jaw and skull connected.
TMJs can slide and rotate. They sit just below the ear and above the lower jaw (mandible). The joints move the mandible in its intended direction.
However, the joint and mandible must be aligned just so for the movements to go smoothly. When the joint is swollen or any changes cause the two pieces to become misaligned, a TMD occurs.
Signs of TMDs
Every person’s TMD journey, from start to resolution, is different, but there are some signs and symptoms that exist in nearly every TMJ case. Chances are, you are experiencing issues like:
- Jaw pain or discomfort in the jaw joint
- Facial muscle pain
- TMJ pain
- Headaches (usually in the morning if you’re a bruxer)
- Ear issues like pain, discomfort, or ringing (tinnitus)
- Clicking, popping, or locking of the jaw
- Limited range of motion in the jaw area
- Teeth sensitivity, bleeding gums, and tooth damage from clenching and grinding
- Bite changes
- Numb or tingling fingers
You may have noticed that some of these symptoms are vague enough to be a sign of multiple health conditions, and you’re right. It’s vital that you talk to your doctor or dentist if you think you may have an ongoing TMD to ensure there’s nothing else going on that could cause or mimic it.
The Categories of TMDs
TMDs are broken into three categories affecting symptoms and how long treatment can take:
Most people with a TMD have myofascial pain. This disorder causes pain or discomfort in the connective tissues over the fascia muscles, as well as the muscles connected to the jaw, neck, and shoulder.
Myofascial disorders are often caused by conditions such as bruxism (jaw clenching and teeth grinding) that overwork the facial muscles and joints.
Internal Joint Derangement
Another type of disorder is internal joint derangement, which occurs due to a displaced disc or jaw dislocation. Discs are slender layers of cartilage cushioning the top of the jawbone and skull. When they’re displaced, the painful bone-on-bone connection occurs.
Degenerative Joint Disease
Finally, you may have a disorder caused by degenerative joint disease (DJD). This type of TMJ issue is seen in patients with rheumatoid arthritis or osteoarthritis, medical conditions that affect the bones and joints.
Recovering From a TMJ Disorder
TMDs can go away on their own, and they often do. But if your symptoms have been going on for more than a few weeks, it may be time to get help.
As with most health and dental issues, the sooner you start treating the problem, the easier (and cheaper) the recovery process usually becomes.
You can start trying to work out the issue at home if you’re pretty sure you know what’s causing the problem, or you can visit your doctor or dentist to learn your treatment options.
Speeding Up Your Recovery
The time it takes to recover from a TMD depends on various factors. Keep in mind that it’s not always a good idea to “speed up” your recovery if it means ignoring the doctor’s advice.
The first thing to consider is the cause of the trauma. If there’s a disease or trauma that is showing up as a TMD, it’s crucial that you work with your doctor throughout the healing process.
Trying to take shortcuts is more likely to lead to setbacks and painful delays. (This means that, yes, you do need to go to physical therapy twice a week for multiple weeks if that’s what your doctor recommends.)
Helping Your Recovery At Home
However, if your symptoms stem from chronic use of the joint or clenching and grinding, there are a few things you can do to hurry along your healing, including the following:
- Cut back on eating chewy, sticky, or hard foods — You don’t have to eliminate them entirely yet, but you should limit them to an occasional treat. As a bonus, this should help you avoid irritating toothaches.
- Break the gum chewing, nail biting, pen cap nibbling, ice crunching habits — If it’s not intentionally edible or a toothpaste/toothbrush, it shouldn’t be part of your TMJ’s workload.
- Try to reduce your caffeine intake — Caffeine and other stimulants, such as tobacco and illicit drugs, cause your muscles to contract and expand (clenching and grinding) more frequently and often uncontrollably.
As long as your TMJ specialist doesn’t recommend a specific oral splint designed for TMJ treatment or obstructive sleep apnea concerns, a custom night guard from professionals like us at JS Dental Lab can help speed up recovery for bruxers.
When used consistently, this at-home therapy prevents your upper and lower teeth from touching and grinding. Because the jaw can’t get traction, your muscles and joints are “forced” to relax.
The caveat here is that you do need a custom fit guard, since those one-size-fits-all and boil-and-bite versions you can buy online and over the counter can actually make your symptoms worse.
Learn more: Is It Okay to Boil Mouth Guards?
General Recovery Times for TMDs
Mild TMJ symptoms can disappear within a few weeks without treatment. If yours doesn’t go away on its own or with the help of a night guard, reach out to your doctor or dentist.
Your dentist will examine you for any dentistry issues causing the pain, and your doctor may recommend physical therapy, medications, or, in some cases, Botox.
TMJ dysfunction caused by underlying medical conditions like sleep apnea or arthritis can take months or years to recover from, depending on the underlying cause, the severity of the condition, and your treatment.
The Consequences of Untreated TMDs
Chronic TMDs can cause damage to your tendons, ligaments, cartilage, muscles, and temporal bone.
The damage from an untreated TMD can lead to chronic health conditions such as:
- Tooth decay and erosion
- Nerve damage
- Permanent dislocation of the joint
Let’s take a deeper look into the dangers of ignoring your TMJ problems.
Chronic Problems in the Jaw
You know the symptoms you’re dealing with now that you want to get rid of? Well, imagine having them chronically for years, possibly forever.
Chronic jaw pain from untreated TMDs is a severe and long-term issue. The inflammation from the damaged joint leads to problems that limit your chewing, yawning, laughing, and talking abilities.
When the damage extends to the joints and causes them to become injured or broken, the consequences can be permanent, needing surgery to fix.
All of these issues mean that your jaw movements will be impaired. Your jaw may become stiff or stuck (lockjaw) and unable to open or close to allow you to talk, eat, or even brush your teeth.
Dental Health Problems
If your TMJ issues stem from bruxing, tooth damage is almost always a side effect. Without treatment, you could have chipped or cracked teeth, sensitive teeth and gums, and tooth decay.
Wearing a night guard significantly reduces the damage caused by bruxing and can prevent this painful and ongoing complication.
Upper Body Ailments
Common symptoms of TMDs include pain in the head, either from headaches or migraines. Stiffness in the neck and jaw tightens those connected muscles and brings on tension headaches or migraines as well.
Pain relievers help reduce the sensation of discomfort but don’t make the problem go away. When the medication wears off, the feelings return.
It’s also possible for a TMD to result in hearing loss or tinnitus. Because the TMJ is so close to your ears, the pain and inflammation may spread to the ear and cause earaches or “ringing” sounds (tinnitus). Ear complications are linked to dizziness, vertigo, and sleep disorders.
Soothing a TMJ Flare-Up
In general, when you deal with chronic TMJ issues, you tend to notice an overall decreased quality of life. It’s not as easy to enjoy eating your favorite foods if you know they’re going to cause the pain of a TMJ flare-up.
Laughing is a no, and even sleeping is difficult!
We understand that sometimes you can’t control the symptoms of your TMD. However, there are a few things you can do to prevent or soothe a TMJ flare-up.
Avoiding a Flare-Up
When you’re dealing with a long-term bout of a TMD, you quickly learn the importance of being cautious with anything that affects your jaw to avoid symptom flare-ups.
Sure, you could learn the causes first-hand, but no one wants to deal with pain if they could have avoided it!
Here are some of the main things that exacerbate TMJ pain:
- Fluctuating hormones (male and female) — Pay attention to the times of day, week, or month when you notice otherwise unexplained flare-ups, and talk to your doctor about tracking your hormones.
- Stress — If you know you’re under a lot of stress, try to include exercise and relaxation techniques into your day, and wear a night guard to minimize damage from grinding.
- Dehydration — Lack of water leads to dehydration, which impacts our muscles, causing them to contract and leading to muscle and joint pain.
- Poor posture — If your head and shoulders are frequently slumped forward, this can cause your jaw to shift and lead to TMJ pain.
- Eating hard, sticky, crunchy, and chewy foods — Choose soft meals until you know your TMJ is on the mend.
As you adjust to life with a TMD in recovery, you’ll learn what positions you shouldn’t sleep in (side sleepers, especially), foods you shouldn’t eat, and movements you should avoid. But even with those cautious actions, flare-ups occur.
How to Soothe a TMJ Flare-Up
Soothing a TMJ flare-up fast is vital! You want to get back to your day, but you can’t when basic actions like talking or turning your head cause excruciating pain.
These home remedies can help reduce or eliminate the discomfort you’re feeling:
- Apply ice or warm, moist heat to the side of your face to reduce pain and swelling — Hot showers and baths do a similar trick.
- Take over-the-counter pain relievers or NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories) — These could include Ibuprofen or prescription muscle relaxants. (Always talk to your doctor about which options are best for you.)
- Shift your posture — Avoid slouching or a forward head position.
- Gently massage the muscles around the TMJ — The TMJ is located under the ear and above the lower jaw. Use two or three fingers to push in circular motions until you notice pain relief.
Your doctor might recommend other treatment options for your TMD, such as prescription medications, to help you get through a flare-up. In the meantime, these tips may help you get back to your day.
Symptoms of TMJ don’t have to be long-term, but they can be. To help speed up your recovery, take care of yourself through daily relaxation techniques and eating well (with soft foods), follow your doctor’s treatment plan, and wear a custom-fit night guard from JS Dental Lab.