TMJ injuries are a common dental issue among athletes. As your child (or you) prepare to return to sports this fall, heed this dental hygienist’s advice!

Recently a colleague shared a story with me. Her daughter was hit in the jaw by a soccer ball during a game. It was temporarily painful. But, when her joint ached days later, she started to worry. Was this discomfort normal, she asked me?

The answer: Yes. It was most likely a case of TMD.

What are TMJ and TMD?

TMJ is the acronym for the temporomandibular joint. It is a joint found on both sides of the face (by your ears) that connects the moving part of the lower jaw to the stable temporal bones. As with any other joint, the temporomandibular joint allows for movement. These joints can become irritated and inflamed like any other joint, too.

TMD refers to temporomandibular joint disorder. It can be caused by a number of factors including sports injuries.

Treating TMD

Most people with TMD have symptoms that are temporary and do not worsen into a more serious condition. For these people, symptoms may be relieved with simple treatment done at home. Sometimes symptoms go away without any treatment at all. They also can come back without any warning.

If you have TMD, your dentist may suggest the treatments listed below. Most dentists agree that these treatments work best when they are used in combination. You may not get relief using only one.

Soft foods

Eat foods that don’t require a lot of chewing to give your jaw a chance to rest and heal. Do not eat food that is:

  • Thick or large, requiring you to open your mouth wide
  • Chewy, like a caramel apple
  • Hard or crunchy, like a hard roll, pretzel or raw carrot

Cut food into small pieces so it’s easier to chew. The best food is soft and requires little or no chewing. Examples include:

  • Yogurt
  • Mashed potatoes
  • Cottage cheese
  • Soup
  • Scrambled eggs
  • Fruit smoothies
  • Cooked vegetables or fruits
  • Fish

Symptoms may go away after two or three weeks on a soft-food diet, though you may need to stick to it for a longer time. 

Ice packs, exercise, and moist heat

A routine of ice, exercise, and moist heat helps TMD symptoms. Start by applying an ice pack to the side of your face and temple. This relaxes tight muscles that may cause spasms. Try this for about 10 minutes.

Medicine

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as aspirin or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), help relieve muscle pain and swelling. Most can be bought over-the-counter at pharmacies and drug stores.

Muscle relaxants help relax tight jaw muscles. These can be useful to people who grind or clench their teeth. You will need a prescription.

Splints/ Sports Mouth Guards

These are designed to fit over the teeth. They prevent the upper and lower teeth from coming together. They make it impossible for a person to grind or clench his or her teeth during sports or other activities. They work by taking pressure off the jaw joints and muscles, which gives them a chance to relax and heal.

Wearing a sports mouth guard while playing protects the teeth from injuries associated with impact, and helps to “soften the blow” on TMJ. For an appliance that fits the best, talk with your dentist about having a custom one made in office. They can also be purchased at drug stores, but could exacerbate TMJ symptoms if the fit is not right.

None of these treatments is a cure, but they may relieve the symptoms of TMD. If symptoms continue or return, be sure to see your dentist.

Learn more about Oral Health at the University of Vermont Medical Center. 

Read more dental health articles by Chelsea Brooks. 

Chelsea Brooks is a dental hygienist at the University of Vermont Medical Center Dental and Oral Health practice.

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