Whether it’s getting down to a tune or working an eight-hour shift, grinding is a huge part of our lives. But, when it comes to grinding our teeth, we want absolutely nothing to do with it.
While we commonly refer to chronic, debilitating jaw pain as TMJ (temporomandibular joint), the medical term for the disorder is actually TMD (temporomandibular disorder). “People incorrectly call this disorder TMJ, but that is not accurate,” Beverly Hills, CA cosmetic dentist Marjan Mirani, DDS says. “TMJ is the physical joint that connects the jawbone to the skull, but TMD is the disorder of the joint, which causes TMJ pain, popping or clicking, limited range of motion of the jaw, and headache or facial pain.” This discomfort can be triggered by a slew of different conditions, but dentists say there are solutions.
Around 12 percent of people suffer from TMD at some point in their lives, and Powell, OH cosmetic dentist Neal Patel, DDS says it can noticeably take its toll. “Because the TMJ is constantly active when we speak, chew, laugh and even breathe through our mouths, chronic pain in this joint can seriously diminish quality of life.” For this reason, knowing the warning signs of the disorder is an essential step in treating TMD before it progresses.
“When TMD first starts to form, you may notice headaches and tightness in the jaw, neck and shoulders,” says Beverly Hills, CA cosmetic dentist Kourosh Maddahi, DDS, who adds that difficulty keeping the mouth open and immediate exhaustion after chewing are two other telltale signs that it’s time to visit a dentist. Chevy Chase, MD cosmetic dentist Claudia Cotca, DDS explains that “various sensations in the ear, changes in hearing, various noise signals, or a sensation of fullness in the ears” can also be signals that TMD is forming. “This is largely brought on by stress—dentists have seen an uptick in TMD cases since COVID-19—but there are many different aspects of our day-to-day lives that can cause the jaw to become tense,” Dr. Patel adds.
Form Follows Function
“Knowing the origin and cause of the disorder can point those who are suffering in the right direction,” says Dr. Cotca. “The disorder stems from how the jaw interacts with the body. When the jaw moves in abnormal ways, whether it’s from grinding or talking, we can place unnecessary pressure on the teeth and stretch the muscles, which can damage either or both, and cause TMD.” Atlanta cosmetic dentist Ronald Goldstein, DDS adds that this movement is more common than one would think, estimating that 80 percent of people unconsciously grind or clench their teeth during the day.
Most of the time, TMD is caused by clenching and grinding.—Dr. Kourosh Maddahi
“Generally TMD is caused by an imbalance in the bite and long-term grinding or clenching of the teeth,” says Dr. Mirani. “The teeth, joints and muscles no longer work together in harmony. Over time, the imbalanced bite and worn-down teeth can lead to a loss of symmetry in the face. Also, an overactivity of the masseter muscle, which is responsible for clenching and grinding, can cause the muscle to grow larger, resulting in one or both sides of the face becoming noticeably more muscular and bulged.”
Road to Recovery
While the healing process takes dedication, dentists say it’s possible to stop your TMJ via treatment before it progresses into something unbearable.
Wear a Nightguard
There are many options in the orthodontic world for treating TMD, but Dr. Patel says his first method of action is typically creating a custom-fit nightguard, otherwise known as a splint. “If you know you are grinding at night—one sign is a tight or sore jaw come morning—a cosmetic dentist can create a thick nightguard to wear over your teeth while you snooze. This will allow the muscles of the jaw to rest and heal in order to prevent further wear and tear.”
Aesthetician Nicole Caroline recommends practicing gua sha, the Chinese art of scraping the face and body, to relieve tension. “On clients who have TMJ, I like to work on the temples, as well as theneck and chest muscles, scraping outwards with firm, albeit gentle, pressure. This can release the tension in the neck and jaw to ease pain associated with TMJ.” The Daily Concepts Jade Gua Sha ($16) not only soothes tight jaw pain, but it aids in lymphatic drainage, too.
Tip: Grinding can exert about 200 pounds of pressure on the jaw, but using a nightguard can help protect from damage. One new player to the splint game is Goodbite, a do-it-from-home company that designs its nightguards with a hard outer layer for stability and a soft inner layer for comfort.
Avoid Hard Foods
No matter how much we enjoy hard foods like almonds, candies or chewing gum, Dr. Maddahi says eating them will only make matters worse. “Implementing soft foods into your diet—think yogurt, mashed potatoes and smoothies—will help to keep the pressure off the joint and keep the muscles out of spasm.”
When you have an acute problem, or a TMD issue that is severe at the moment, we can intervene by prescribing anti-inflammatory medications or muscle relaxants in conjunction with hot and cold compresses,” says Dr. Mirani, noting that although it seems like a simple solution, ibuprofen can help reduce inflammation faster than one might think.
Although New York dermatologist Jody Levine, MD recommends visiting a cosmetic dentist, orthodontist or ENT (ear, nose, and throat)specialist to discuss a treatment plan before relying on neurotoxins, she often administers Botox Cosmetic injections into the masseter muscles as a treatment for TMD. “Botox Cosmetic helps relieve symptoms of TMD by relaxing the muscles in the jaw, preventing them from grinding, clenching and producing pain in the area,” she says, adding that this method of treatment can last anywhere from three to six months depending on how long the body holds it. “After the initial injections, it takes the neurotoxin three days to begin working, and it reaches its maximum effect within two weeks. Usually, patients with TMD begin to feel relief within a couple of days following treatment, and experience a significant decrease in pain after just one week.”