School of Dentistry

What causes TMJ pain and what can I do about it?

Person suffering from TMJ pain


The temporomandibular joint (TMJ) is a complex joint formed by the head of the lower jaw, the skull base and ligaments, muscles and nerves. There are two TMJs located on each side of the jaw that enable a seamless opening and closing of the jaw during our daily activities. Any disruption to this complex system has the potential to lead to pain and discomfort.

What causes TMJ pain?

Pain and dysfunction in the TMJ can be caused by: 

  • Trauma to the joint caused by clenching and grinding teeth
  • Direct trauma to the joint from an accident or sports injury
  • High inflammatory pathologies such as Rheumatoid Arthritis, Fibromyalgia, JIA, Psoriatic arthritis, Ehlers-Danlos
  • Complications from an infection, radiation or after getting a numbing shot for dental work

What can you do about it?
When treating TMJ pain the goal is to:
1. Establish the diagnosis
2. Identify and control causal factors
3. Reduce inflammation and pain
4. Reduce joint overload
5. Improve range of motion and restore jaw function

Typically, around 80% of patients improve with a conservative treatment approach and do not require any surgical treatment.

Conservative treatment most commonly includes:

  • Moist heat and ice to the face
  • Soft diet
  • Over the counter medications including non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and gels
  • Jaw exercises
  • Splint or nightguard
  • Relaxation techniques

“For the patients that do not respond to conservative treatment or if we think the patient is a candidate for acute surgical intervention, we typically order some imaging, including an MRI, to better assess the condition of the TMJ and formulate a comprehensive treatment plan,” said Felix Amarista, DDS, clinical assistant professor in the Department of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery at UT Health Science Center San Antonio.

Symptom resolution time varies, but typically, with proper conservative treatment, patients can expect improvement within four to six weeks and complete resolution within six months to a year. In cases requiring immediate or surgical intervention, it's essential to consult with your dentist. They can assess your situation and potentially provide a referral to the UT Dentistry oral and maxillofacial surgery department for comprehensive diagnosis and treatment options.

For more information on TMJ pain, watch our most recent video from our Ask the Dentist series on YouTube, “What causes TMJ pain and what can I do about it?”, featuring Amarista.

Share This Story