What does a TMJ Specialist do?

T. Briseno

A TMJ specialist focuses on the diagnosis and treatment of Temporomandibular Joint Dysfunction (TMD), which is generally called TMJ for the temporomandibular joint itself. Many dentists receive training in TMJ disorders, and some doctors working with pain management of the head, neck, and face complete similar coursework, but a TMJ specialist generally focuses on the working of the joint and its relation to dental problems and related body pains. Training for a specialist typically includes general and neuromuscular dentistry, orofacial and maxillofacial pain treatment, and orthodontics and restoration techniques.

A person with TMJ.
A person with TMJ.

Performing diagnostic tests and talking with patients about their symptoms is a large part of the job for a TMJ specialist. Often those who suffer from TMJ disorders have headaches and back pain or radiating leg pain with numbness of fingers and toes. Some have problems beginning in the mouth, with teeth grinding, broken teeth or chronic jaw pain. Isolating symptoms leads to finding problems with the teeth and bite of the jaw itself, which may or may not be the actual TMJ dysfunction; it could be a dentistry issue, such as a dental crown sitting too high in the mouth and throwing off the bite.

A bottle of OTC painkillers, which can help with jaw pain from TMJ.
A bottle of OTC painkillers, which can help with jaw pain from TMJ.

Likewise, aches and pains in the body often lead individuals to the doctor or chiropractor before the dentist, and in many cases a long process of elimination helps to pinpoint jaw dysfunction. A TMJ specialist typically knows what to look for and can narrow the problem through imaging diagnostics and questions and answers. Taking measurements around the face and jaw helps isolate problem areas and leads to clues in setting a treatment plan.

After a definitive diagnosis, a TMJ specialist can begin treatment designed to alleviate pain and correct the dysfunction of the jaw. Some specialists work with general and cosmetic dental procedures to build up and level off teeth, which can help improve the positioning of the jaw itself during use. Others combine orthodontic splints and other corrective orthotics while allowing the jaw joints to resettle into proper positioning. In many cases a patient's jaw joints will be in spasm, with muscles clenched and tightened through overuse and bad positioning, and the TMJ specialist will physically manipulate the muscles with massage, needle injections, electrical nerve stimulation therapy, or a combination of some or all of these techniques.

Being a TMJ specialist involves multidisciplinary education as well as considerable skills in listening to a patient and recording details of medical and dental history. While the temporomandibular joint itself seems a tiny, isolated part of overall jaw functioning, its misalignment can cause problems in the body from head to toe. It is the job of a TMJ specialist to be part detective, part counselor, and part cosmetic builder to isolate and bring correction to what, for many, is a true pain in the neck.

A TMJ specialist may use several types of imaging to get a full picture of the mouth and jaw.
A TMJ specialist may use several types of imaging to get a full picture of the mouth and jaw.

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