At my practice in Waltham, MA I see a large percentage of patients with a variety of TMJ symptoms. A common question from my patients is, “My jaw pops and clicks, is that dangerous?” It can be quite alarming for a patient when they are chewing a sandwich and their jaw pops in and out with every bite. The good news is— a large percentage of patients with jaws that click is painless and often harmless. This inevitably leads the patient to ask the next question, “Should anything be done about my clicking jaw?” My response is, as anything in life, it depends— If the popping or clicking is painless, not inhibiting ability to eat, and is not in the presence of muscle pain, joint pain, or headaches, I often recommend to monitor the popping or clicking over time.

In some instances, however, the clicking is accompanied by other symptoms such as loss of mouth opening, muscle pain, headaches, and/or jaw fatigue. These TMJ symptoms should be considered as a signal to follow up with a TMJ specialist to evaluate the situation. The combination of clicking in the presence of other symptoms is indicating that there is an unbalance in the forces of the jaw and the muscles surrounding it. Over time, this imbalance can create chronic pain which is easier to treat earlier than as the symptoms become more long standing.

When is TMJ treatment needed?

Fortunately, there are many TMJ treatment approaches we have to address a clicking TMJ that becomes painful and/or one with limited mouth opening and function. Here are a few common jaw-clicking or popping situations that require treatment.

  1. When TMJ clicking occurs but mouth range of motion is intact, it is known as disc displacement with reduction.
  2. When clicking stops, mouth opening is limited, and jaw deflection occurs to one side this is known as disc displacement without reduction with limited opening.
  3. When there is a jaw clicking accompanied by muscle soreness, muscle fatigue, or headaches that affect day to day activities. This often indicates that the jaw, temporal mandibular joint, and the teeth are out of harmony. What is happening is—The position where the teeth are most comfortable biting together, puts a strain on the position where the jaw is most comfortable closing. This battle for position between the jaw and the teeth, causes the muscles to work extra hard, constantly shifting to accommodate both positions. This leads to fatigue, pain, and strained ligaments which ultimately contributes to the jaw clicking and popping.

To simplify, there is a disc that sits on top of your jaw joint. When this disc is out of the proper position– You get clicking and popping. It’s not an issue unless the positioning creates symptoms that affect function. 

It’s not that complicated, I promise

Now I know what your thinking, this all sounds complicated, so the treatment is surgery, right? Good news again, more than 95% of TMJ patients can successfully be treated without any invasive surgery. There is a combination of non-invasive techniques which depend on the patient’s particular circumstance. To give you an idea, some examples of treatment that a TMJ specialist may recommend are an orthotic night guard, occlusal equilibration (an adjustment of your bite), orthodontics, and/or stress management. The treatment for TMJ can be life-changing. To a patient suffering from TMJ for a long period of time, it can feel like a weight of bricks are removed from them after their symptoms improve.