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Temporomandibular joints are the joints in front of each ear that connect the lower jaw to the skull. These joints are responsible for all possible movements of the jaw, movements that allow for activities such as eating, talking, and making facial expressions. When the temporomandibular joint fails to work properly, it is known as temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ). The connection between TMJ and ear pain is primarily one of location.
TMJ and ear pain can go hand in hand, and pain in the jaw, the ear, or both is among the most common characteristics of TMJ. Others include a ringing or buzzing in the ear, a sensation that the ear is clogged, headaches, aching facial muscles, noises such as popping when opening or closing the mouth or chewing, loss of hearing, dizziness, a sensation that one’s upper and lower teeth do not meet, and even problems with vision. The ear’s inclusion in suffering the symptoms of TMJ is a result of the location of the temporomandibular joint near the ear.
Doctors do not fully understand what causes TMJ, and research in the early 21st century is examining whether TMJ is related to other illnesses or is part of a larger, as yet unidentified syndrome. Disorders of the jaw fall within the scope of a dentist’s treatment, but TMJ and ear pain are so commonly connected that many patients with undiagnosed TMJ are often referred to an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) doctor rather than a dentist. Many TMJ sufferers undergo expensive testing and treatments for their ears — treatments that often prove ineffective — before a diagnosis of TMJ is made.
Some conditions that may cause TMJ include injuries to the jaw or face; inflammation of the joint, such as with arthritis; dental work; grinding of the teeth while sleeping or from stress; bacterial or viral infection; and disorders of the autoimmune system such as fibromyalgia, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis. There may also be a genetic component to the disorder. TMJ mainly affects women from their teens into their 50s, but it can also affect men.
Treatments for TMJ and ear pain generally try to limit stress on the joints by avoiding opening the mouth too wide, avoiding foods that are difficult to chew, taking over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications such as ibuprofen, applying ice or heat directly to the afflicted joint, and wearing a bite guard while sleeping. Other treatments may include prescription muscle relaxers and, in extreme cases, surgery. Simple home care treatments often provide relief for TMJ and ear pain.