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What's the Difference Between TMD and TMJ?

April 12th, 2024 | 6 min read

By NYC Smile Design

TMJ Jaw Pain

In the realm of dental and jaw-related concerns, two acronyms often emerge, leading to confusion: TMD and TMJ. 

At NYC Smile Design, Dr. Elisa Mello and Dr. Ramin Tabib often encounter patients puzzled by the terms TMD and TMJ, unsure of the distinction and its impact on their dental health. With years of experience in addressing these concerns, our goal through this blog is to clarify these terms, providing you with the knowledge needed to understand your symptoms and the options available for treatment. This understanding is a critical first step in seeking relief and improving your quality of life.

The purpose of this blog is to dispel any ambiguity by distinguishing between these two closely related yet distinct terms.

Understanding the Difference between TMJ and TMD

It is critical to comprehend the differences between TMJ and TMD in order to expand on your basic knowledge. The Temporomandibular Joint (TMJ) serves as a pivotal hinge and sliding mechanism, essential for jaw movement including chewing, speaking, and yawning. It's one of the body's most complex systems, consisting of bones, muscles, and ligaments working in harmony to enable a wide range of motions.

Conversely, temporomandibular disorders (TMD) are a collection of ailments that result in pain and dysfunction in the muscles that control the movement of the jaw as well as the temporomandibular joint (TMJ). These disorders can result from a variety of issues such as jaw injury, arthritis, or habitual grinding and clenching of teeth, known as bruxism. TMD can manifest through symptoms like pain in the TMJ area, difficulty in opening the mouth wide, and a clicking or popping sound when the jaw moves. It is essential for anyone experiencing jaw discomfort or looking to learn more about their symptoms and possible treatments to distinguish between the TMJ body part and the disorder of this body part and surrounding hard and soft tissues, generally known as TMD.

A person with jaw pain

Temporomandibular Joint (TMJ)

The Temporomandibular Joint (TMJ) is a vital component of the human anatomy, serving as the main connection between the lower jaw (mandible) and the skull. Positioned on either side of the head, these joints are integral to a wide range of oral and facial movements, including chewing, speaking, and yawning. The complexity of the TMJ lies in its ability to provide both hinge action and sliding motions, a duality that allows for the jaw's extensive range of movement.

Issues with the TMJ can manifest due to a variety of reasons. Trauma to the jaw or joint, for instance, can lead to dislocation or injury, disrupting the normal functioning of the TMJ. Degenerative joint conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis can also impact the TMJ, leading to cartilage degradation in the joint and consequent pain and limited mobility. Additionally, repetitive motions such as clenching or grinding your teeth (bruxism) put too much pressure on the joint, which can cause discomfort and dysfunction as well as changes in the way your teeth meet (bite) and subsequent joint position changes.

Symptoms of TMD issues are diverse, ranging from mild to severe, and may include persistent pain in the jaw area, difficulty or discomfort while chewing, a feeling of stiffness or locking of the jaw, and audible clicking, popping, or grating sounds when the jaw moves. In some cases, TMJ problems can also lead to headaches, ear pain, discomfort in the neck and shoulders,  bite changes in how your teeth meet, and/or loss of tooth structure.

A diagram of the Temporomandibular Joint

Temporomandibular Disorders (TMD)

Temporomandibular Disorders (TMD) encompass a group of conditions that impact the functionality and health of the temporomandibular joints (TMJ), your teeth and bite, as well as the muscles and ligaments that support and enable jaw movements. These disorders are characterized by a spectrum of symptoms that can affect the jaw and face, often leading to discomfort and impaired function.

Symptoms of TMD are diverse and can vary in intensity, including persistent pain in the jaw area, challenges in opening the mouth wide, discomfort while chewing, and an audible popping or clicking noise when the jaw is in motion. When bruxism- clenching and/or grinding of your teeth, is present, your bite position and tooth structure can change. These alterations cause the jaw and facial muscles to become overactive,, which results in hypertrophy and spasticity. Some patients may noticeably have more cheek muscles at the angle of their jaw as a result of this muscular hypertrophy, giving them a more pronounced and plump face. In addition, it is not always symmetrical, which can give the face an uneven appearance. The wide range of symptoms associated with TMD is highlighted by the fact that some people may also experience headaches, earaches, dizziness, and even shoulder or neck pain.

 The causes of TMD are complex and can be attributed to a variety of factors. Physical stress on the TMJ and its supporting structures, often resulting from clenching or grinding the teeth (bruxism), can lead to TMD. This excessive pressure can cause wear on the joint, leading to discomfort and dysfunction. Additionally, injury or trauma to the jaw or joint area, such as a blow to the face or whiplash, can directly contribute to the development of TMD.

TMD is significantly impacted by breathing problems, which can include: allergies, sinus infections, deviated septa, sleep apnea, upper airway resistance syndrome, snoring, excess weight pressing on the neck muscles, tongue-ties, and mouth breathing. Breathing issues have a direct effect on the development and maintenance of wide tooth arches and bites that allow for a more open airway. Both nose breathing and proper tongue placement during swallowing are made possible by the wide tooth arches. Many symptoms associated with TMD can be linked to breathing problems that interfere with the proper development of the arch.

Genetic predispositions may also play a role in the susceptibility to TMD, suggesting that some individuals may be more prone to these disorders based on their genetic makeup. Arthritis in the TMJ, resulting from degenerative joint diseases, can cause inflammation and degeneration of the joint, further complicating TMD. Even the alignment of one's teeth and jaw, or other dental issues that can be inherited,  can influence the balance and function of the TMJ, potentially leading to TMD symptoms.


Diagnosing TMD and TMJ Issues

Diagnosing TMD and TMJ issues is a meticulous process that requires a detailed examination and collaboration between dental professionals. The initial step typically involves a thorough physical examination, where the dentist assesses the range of motion of the jaw, listens for any sounds during jaw movement, and checks for areas of pain or discomfort around the jaw and TMJ.

To gain deeper insights, imaging tests such as X-rays, MRI, or CT scans might be employed. These tests provide detailed images of the jawbone, TMJ, and surrounding structures, helping to pinpoint abnormalities or signs of damage that could be contributing to the patient's symptoms. 3D dental scans aid in assessing the role a patient's bite has played in the condition. They also give insight into what dental treatments can aid in treating TMD.

The dentist will also review the patient's medical and dental history to look for any relevant risk factors for TMD, such as a history of injuries, arthritis, or habits like clenching or grinding teeth. Every treatment that has been attempted will be reviewed, including what it was, when it was, and whether or not it worked. It will also be discussed why the patient sought treatment today. This comprehensive evaluation aids in the diagnosis of TMD or TMJ-related issues and furnishes data for the development of a personalized treatment regimen that addresses the patient's specific causes and symptoms.

Treatment Options for TMD

The approach to treating Temporomandibular Disorders (TMD) is highly personalized and designed to address the specific symptoms and underlying causes experienced by each patient. The range of treatment options is broad, catering to the varied nature of the disorder:

1. Self-Care Practices

Often, initial treatment may involve recommendations for self-care practices aimed at alleviating symptoms. These can include applying ice or heat to the jaw area, consuming soft foods to minimize jaw strain, and practicing stress-reduction techniques to lessen instances of teeth clenching or grinding.

2. Therapeutic Exercises

Certain exercises can strengthen the jaw muscles and improve flexibility, reducing discomfort and enhancing the range of motion. These exercises are typically guided by a healthcare professional to ensure they're performed correctly and effectively.

3. Oral Appliances

For many patients, oral appliances such as splints or mouthguards are effective in relieving TMD symptoms. These devices are custom-made to fit the patient's mouth, helping to reduce jaw clenching and teeth grinding, particularly during sleep.

4. Medication

Depending on the severity of the symptoms, medications such as anti-inflammatories, muscle relaxants, or even antidepressants for stress-induced clenching may be prescribed to provide relief.

5. Dental Treatment

Dental treatments for TMD can include, orthodontic treatment to realign the bite that has been changed from clenching and grinding as well as orthodontics to widen and expand the jaws to support proper tongue position and mouth breathing. Botox Therapeutic treatment can also be used to help diminish the overactive spastic muscles, that are causing the bite changes and making the face enlarged, uncomfortable, sore, and stiff. For cases where there has been a loss of tooth structure from grinding, restorations can be placed to the correct anatomy and support for the bite. Myofunctional therapy, to help train proper swallowing with the tongue in the proper position and improve nose breathing, can also be an important part of treatment. They will work together with your dentist to help improve and maintain your orthodontic result.

6. Sleep Therapy Treatments

In order to assess if there is an airway issue contributing to the TMD, and it likely is,  a patient may be prescribed a sleep study to evaluate for sleep apnea. If a CBCT is taken of the face and the radiology report indicates issues with the septum or sinus or the size and dimension of the airway, a consult with an ENT may be given. The ENT and dentist will work together to make sure all pieces of the puzzle are being addressed and to achieve the maximum medical improvement with your TMD.

A person getting an injection

7. Physical Therapy

Physical therapy sessions can be beneficial in improving jaw mobility and reducing pain through targeted exercises, ultrasound therapy, and manual therapy techniques.

8. Advanced Treatments 

In cases where conservative treatments do not provide adequate relief, more advanced options like corticosteroid injections or surgery may be considered. Surgical interventions are usually a last resort and are tailored to the specific needs of the patient.

9. Behavioral Therapy

For those whose TMD is exacerbated by stress-related habits, behavioral therapy can offer strategies to manage stress and reduce behaviors that contribute to jaw tension.

Finding the Treatment for You

Understanding the difference between TMJ and TMD is crucial for identifying and addressing jaw-related issues effectively. While TMJ refers to the joint itself, TMD encompasses disorders affecting this joint's functionality and comfort.

If you're experiencing symptoms of TMD or have concerns about your TMJ, consulting with a dental professional is a vital step toward receiving the care you need. At NYC Smile Design, Dr. Elisa Mello and Dr. Ramin Tabib specialize in diagnosing and treating TMJ disorders, offering personalized treatment plans tailored to each patient's unique needs. Schedule a consultation today to embark on your journey towards relief and recovery.