Harvard Women's Health Watch

Joint problems: Caution in treating temporomandibular disorders

Joint problems

Caution in treating temporomandibular disorders

You may be ready to try anything for relief. But unproven fixes can cause greater injury and disability.

For most of us, jaw pain is a fleeting experience — caused, perhaps, by a too-wide yawn, a big bite on a bagel, or an afternoon of dental work. But for women with temporomandibular disorders (TMD), jaw pain — sometimes radiating to the ear, eyes, face, neck, and shoulders — can be a source of unrelenting misery. In desperation, some women have undergone extensive orthodontia, used a variety of oral appliances, or had teeth ground down or selectively removed. None of these approaches has any proven benefit in treating TMD. Other women have received artificial implants that were never tested for safety or effectiveness, sometimes with disastrous results.

About 10 million people in the United States have TMD. Two-thirds of them are women, and so are 80% to 90% of those treated for the disorder. Symptoms usually first appear after puberty and peak between the ages of 20 and 40. Apart from jaw pain, symptoms include limited jaw movement (or a feeling that the jaw is "locked"), aching while chewing, chronic headache, and clicking or popping sounds in the temporomandibular joint (TMJ).

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