Posted on November 16th, 2020

Should you see an orthodontist for TMJ- represented by a young woman in a red plaid shirt holding her jaw in pain

It is estimated that over 10 million Americans suffer from TMJ disorders (TMD). Read on to explore the symptoms, causes, and treatment of TMJ disorders, and how and when an orthodontist can help.

What is TMJ?

model of human skull on blue background with TMJ area highlighted in red

TMJ stands for temporomandibular joint. It is a small and delicate joint that connects the lower jaw, or mandible, to the temporal bone in the side of the head.

Because of the combination of hinge and sliding motions, the TMJ is one of the most complicated joints in the body.

Every time you open or close your mouth to yawn, chew, or speak, you are using your temporomandibular joint. You can feel the joint in action by placing your fingers just in front of your ears and opening your mouth.

TMJ vs. TMD—What’s the difference?

As explained above, TMJ stands for the temporomandibular joint itself, while TMD refers to disorders of the temporomandibular joint and surrounding muscles.

Temporomandibular disorders can stem from the muscles that control the jaw, damage or injury to the joint or its parts, or an arthritic condition that is affecting the joint.


TMD can affect anyone at any age, but it is more prevalent in women (particularly those considered to be in their childbearing years) than in men.

Symptoms of TMD can vary widely. The pain may be mild, moderate, or severe and can be occasional or persistent. Other symptoms include:

  • Recurring headaches
  • Swelling on the side(s) of the face
  • Radiating pain in the face, neck, or jaw
  • Clicking or popping, combined with pain, when the jaw is moved
  • Difficulty opening or closing the mouth
  • Difficulty chewing
  • Ringing in the ears
  • Earaches
  • Tooth sensitivity where no other issues are found
  • Change in alignment of upper and lower teeth


In many cases of TMD, the cause is unknown, and the symptoms seem to come from out of nowhere. There are, however, certain medical conditions and physical behaviors that can lead to or exacerbate disorders of the TMJ:

  • Arthritis
  • Injury, dislocation, or erosion of the joint
  • Structural abnormalities present at birth
  • Clenching or grinding teeth
  • Misalignment of the jaw or teeth


Currently, a single, standardized test for diagnosing TMD doesn’t exist. And, because the cause from case to case isn’t always clear, TMD can be difficult to diagnose.

The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR) suggests visiting your doctor to rule out other causes of your pain, as other health conditions such as ear and sinus infections can cause similar symptoms.

In addition to ruling out other possible causes, a medical history review, a physical examination of the TMJ joints and muscles, and x-rays or other imaging techniques may be involved in diagnosing TMD.


Treatment for TMD varies and is based on the severity, duration, and underlying cause of the symptoms.

Surgery, or any other approach that is irreversible, is considered a last resort and is not required in most cases of TMD.

Instead, and because the majority of cases are temporary and will clear up on their own, both the NIDCR and the TMJ Association (TMJA) recommend a conservative approach to treatment.

At Home Treatment

Most of the time, temporomandibular pain will go away on its own. If not, there are several things you can do to manage the pain at home:

  • Eat soft foods
  • Apply ice packs
  • Avoid gum chewing and opening your mouth widely
  • Practice stress reduction and relaxation techniques

Over-the-counter pain medications like ibuprofen may also provide short-term relief (with doctor’s approval).

Orthodontic Treatment of TMJ Disorders

Orthodontists can treat TMJ disorders in a variety of ways, most of which are non-invasive.

Your orthodontist may prescribe a night guard to be worn while you sleep. This device will reposition your teeth and jaw, which allows the temporomandibular muscles to relax and heal.

Alternatively, your orthodontist may provide you with a splint to be worn throughout the day. These appliances are made of a clear material similar to Invisalign clear aligners and are virtually undetectable.

If malocclusion is behind your TMJ disorder, then your orthodontist may suggest braces or Invisalign. And, if it is determined that orthodontics is not the solution to your TMD, your orthodontist will refer you to another doctor or specialist that can help.

So, Should You See an Orthodontist for your TMJ Disorder?

You should always see a medical professional if you are having symptoms that are causing concern. Orthodontists are qualified to diagnose TMD as they have extensive training and experience in dealing with the structure of the face and jaw, more so than general dentists.

Once the diagnosis is made, your orthodontist will recommend the best course of action in treating your TMD, be it self care, orthodontics, or in very rare cases, a more aggressive approach such as surgery.

If you are experiencing TMD symptoms and live in the local area, contact us for a FREE consultation. Dr. Irwin is a caring orthodontist in Vancouver, WA, who will expertly evaluate your condition and provide you with a treatment plan to alleviate your pain and improve the function of your TMJ.