The temporomandibular joints are the jaw joints on either side of your face. These joints work tirelessly to perform many functions, but when they don’t work correctly it is referred to as temporomandibular joint dysfunction. This condition is known as TMJ or TMD. Some common causes of TMJ include bruxism, injury to the joint, and osteoarthritis. People with TMJ disorders may suffer from TMJ muscle spasms which are the muscle spasms in the jaw, ear, or neck.
The lower jaw bone (called the mandible), as well as the jaw muscles (chewing muscles), are very important for facial function as they are connected to many tendons, ligaments, and nerves. They help you smile, eat, and talk. TMJ muscle spasms can be painful, and they can affect your quality of life.
What Does a TMJ Muscle Spasm Feel Like?
A TMJ spasm is an involuntary twitch beneath the skin. It happens when muscles contract, causing muscle tension and jaw pain. You may have noticed other parts of your body spontaneously spasm, which is typically not cause for concern. However, jaw spasms can be a sign of something a bit more serious, and they can be more painful and disruptive than spasms in other places.
When a spasm happens in your jaw muscles, you may feel the jaw muscles tighten, and they may feel physically hard to the touch. You might notice that you have difficulty swallowing, and your jaw might lock in either an open or closed position. These reactions can cause severe facial pain.
TMJ muscle spasms can be painful, and this pain usually starts in your jaw. It can then turn into ear pain, neck pain, back pain, and headaches. Jaw muscle pain radiates to other parts of the body because the jaw joints are connected to many other important bones and muscles. A jaw muscle spasm often makes opening and closing the mouth difficult. In general, jaw spasms restrict overall jaw movement.
While spasms in the jaw tend to be the most alarming, people with TMJ can also experience spasms in their ear and neck as well. If this happens, you might feel a pulsing sensation along with tightening and pain.
A TMJ muscle spasm may be transient, lasting only momentarily. However, if you don’t address the underlying problem, TMJ muscle spasms may become chronic, increasing the odds of your jaw locking.
Why Do Muscle Spasms Occur?
TMJ muscle spasms are caused by overuse and overstretching of the jaw muscles. This can happen for a variety of reasons, including teeth grinding (bruxism), damage to facial muscles and nerves, a misaligned bite, or rheumatoid arthritis. Additionally, a direct injury to your jaw, such as dislocation, can cause spasms as well.
Having an unstable bite makes your jaw muscles stiff and painful. The more painful your jaw becomes, the more likely you are to tense your jaw. This can lead to even more muscle spasms. (Muscle Spasms and Other Causes of TMJ)
According to the University of Michigan Health, “The most common cause of TMD symptoms is muscle tension, often triggered by stress. When you are under stress, you may be in the habit of clenching or grinding your teeth. These habits can tire the jaw muscles and lead to a cycle of muscle spasm, tissue damage, pain, sore muscles, and more spasm”. Addressing the cause of your TMJ muscle spasms can stop this cycle of spasms and chronic pain from continuing.
How Can You Treat and Prevent TMJ Muscle Spasms?
Treating TMJ muscle spasms is imperative because chronic muscle spasms can lead to TMJ disorder. They can also make daily activities like eating and talking difficult.
Some common treatment options include muscle relaxants, anti-inflammatory medications, tricyclic antidepressants, and pain medications such as ibuprofen. Additionally, your dentist may recommend using a mouthguard or splint. This is the most commonly recommended TMJ treatment. There are different types of splints to address TMJ issues: repositioning splint, stabilization splint, and NTI night guard.
You might achieve temporary relief by alternating moist heat and cold compresses to the jaw. Other treatment options include physical therapy, avoiding eating hard foods, and avoiding chewing gum. Eating soft foods may help alleviate some of the muscle and joint pain, but will not provide a permanent solution. If your TMD progresses, your dentist may suggest dental work or orthodontic appliances. He or she may also need to take dental x-rays to identify the severity of your condition.
It’s important to visit your dentist if you are experiencing TMJ pain or muscle spasms in your jaw joint. If you attempt to treat the problem yourself, you may miss the underlying cause. Your dentist can help determine what is causing your spasms so he or she can recommend a treatment option that addresses the root cause of the problem.
Help for TMJ Muscle Spasms
Experiencing muscle spasms in your jaw can make everyday life difficult. The spasms can cause pain and make it hard to do things like eating and talking. Often these spasms occur due to some kind of overuse or damage to your jaw or surrounding area. If you have symptoms of temporomandibular joint disorder or are experiencing symptoms of TMJ, make an appointment to see your dentist or health care professional. He or she can evaluate your jaw and recommend a treatment plan based on your individual situation.
- Chan & Segulyev Writing Staff. (2018). Muscle Spasms and Other Causes of TMJ. The Burbank Dentist. https://theburbankdentist.com/services/tmd-specialist-treatment/what-causes-tmj/
- Healthwise Staff. (2020). Temporomandibular Disorders (TMD). Michigan Medicine. https://www.uofmhealth.org/health-library/hw209469
- Mercer Smiles Writing Staff. (2020). TMJ Disorder Symptoms Can be Nagging. Mercer Smiles. https://mercersmiles.com/tmj-disorder-symptoms-can-be-nagging/