You've never heard of it, but your dentist says the frequent headaches, muscle pain and popping sound you hear when you open and close your mouth is called TMJ disorder. The good news is you're not alone. Over 10 million people in the U.S. experience TMJ disorder, and the majority of that number is women; in fact, women in their childbearing years account for 90% of all TMJ sufferers. Although doctors aren't sure why more women seek dental treatment for this disorder than men, there is research to help us understand it.
What to Look for
First of all, TMJ disorder is a complex condition that affects the joint connecting your lower jaw to your skull. The temporomandibular joint, or TMJ, contains the joint socket and muscles used for chewing and speaking. Also referred to as TMJ syndrome or TMD, TMJ disorder happens when these joints become compromised, often as a result of trauma caused by an accident, teeth grinding, known as bruxism, or teeth clenching.
As a woman, you should be aware of the factors that can cause TMJ so you can take measures to avoid it. You may be more prone to developing TMJ disorder for several reasons:
Stress -- Teeth grinding or clenching is often the result of stress. Not that women necessarily have more stress than men, but it is a significant contributing factor to TMJ syndrome.
Medical Conditions -- Arthritis is also one of the causes of TMJ. As arthritis is more common in women, it would make sense that they would make up a larger percentage of TMJ cases related to arthritis. Women who suffer from fibromyalgia also often have TMJ pain.
Hormones -- Research suggests a link between estrogen, pain and jaw joints. Scientists have found estrogen receptors in the temporomandibular joints of baboons, while none were found in males. Studies have also shown that women who undergo hormone replacement therapy or take oral contraceptives are more likely to report jaw pain.
Joint Structure -- Some believe the collagen that holds the disk in place between the joint's ball and socket in women is different from men. This may cause more women to have dislocated disks, which can trigger TMJ.
Vitamin Deficiencies -- Several conditions linked to magnesium deficiencies have been found to be more common among women, including TMJ syndrome. There is a possibility that menstruation contributes to some vitamin deficiencies, which may explain why TMJ affects women in their childbearing years.
Taking Time to Help Yourself
Whether women are more affected by TMJ disorder or if they're just more likely to seek help for it, they're taking the right route by looking into it. A dentist who's familiar with TMJ can diagnose the condition and rule out other jaw problems. If you're a woman with jaw joint discomfort, be sure to speak with your dentist if you have any of the following symptoms:
- Problems chewing or popping sounds in the jaw
- Headaches, dizziness or ringing in the ears
- Pain in jaw joints, face, neck or shoulders
- Muscle spasms
- Trouble opening or closing the jaw or lockjaw
- Swelling on the side of your face
Your dentist can perform several exams to determine if you have TMJ syndrome. Once diagnosed, you can wait for TMJ to go away on its own or try home therapies for temporary relief. Jaw exercises and warm compresses will help you relax the jaw, and you should also take measures to reduce stress. In the meantime, your dentist may give you a prescription to control TMJ pain, and you should avoid hard and sticky foods to help the joint heal.
For more extreme cases, your dentist may give you a splint or bite plate, which is a plastic guard worn to reduce clenching and teeth grinding. Your doctor may also inject a cleaning solution into the joint to wash away fluid or cortisone to relieve pain. As a last resort, surgery may be used to correct the situation.
A Joint Effort
Scientists are still trying to understand TMJ disorder. But as scientific research progresses, we'll have more information as to why women tend to be more affected. In the meantime, you can take steps to prevent the disease. Reducing stress, eating well and exercising can lessen your chances of getting TMJ syndrome, along with many other ailments. Besides, with all you have to do, shouldn't you take time to relax anyway?