Dr. Lauren Ta Answers Most Commonly Asked TMJ/TMD Questions

Having such an accomplished doctor in temporomandibular disorder assessment, treatment, and pain has lead to a lot of questions from patients and staff alike. We put together the most common questions and asked the renowned Dr. Lauren Ta for her experience!

Note from Our Patient Coordinators – Many patients will interchange use of TMJ and TMD. We do it too sometimes, so we know what patients mean when the two come up in conversation and many questions that patients have! Simply, TMJ is the part/area of the body, and TMD are issues concerning that area of the body.

The temporomandibular joint is commonly referred to as TMJ. The TMJ is the hinge joint between the temporal bone and the lower jaw. Any problem that prevents the complex system of muscles, bones, and joints from working together in harmony may result in temporomandibular disorder (TMD).

What are the most common symptoms, or complaints, that bring someone to see you for TMD?

TMJ pain or soreness in the joint itself

Swelling or pain in the face

Jaw spasm or stiff jaw muscles

Restricted jaw movement, decreased mobility in the jaw, difficulty eating, chewing, or opening the mouth,

Locked jaw (inability to open the mouth or move the jaw at all)

Clicking, popping or grating sound in the joint when chewing

Tooth pain, sensitivity of teeth without presence of an oral health disorder

Unexplained bite changes, or changes in the way teeth are aligned or fit together


Dizziness, earaches, stuffiness, ringing in the ears

Shoulder or neck pain


What are some of the lesser known symptoms of TMJ patients, symptoms that a prospective patient may not think is related to TMJ?

Sometimes TMJ dysfunction can manifest in ways that may seem unrelated to opening and closing of the jaw including earaches, tinnitus, dizziness, headaches, nerve pain and neurological conditions.


What are the behaviors that lead to TMJ problems?

Stress-related habits can increase the risk of developing TMD, such as clenching and unclenching the jaw, grinding of teeth, gum chewing or nail biting. In some cases, chronic neck symptoms with pain and muscle tightness or forward head postures can impact the structures and stability of your jaw muscles and temporomandibular joints (TMJs).


What issues can TMJ problems cause over time, if not treated?

If TMJ pain is left untreated, it can lead to chronic issues and are often increasingly difficult to treat. Untreated TMJ disorder can contribute to long term damage of the internal jaw structures and muscles, and uneven facial muscles. It can also cause existing dental work to wear down or damage teeth.


What made you decide to further your education and experience in TMD (Neuro/Pain)?

When I first practiced after dental school, I saw many patients with orofacial pain and TMJ disorders but had very limited knowledge about the disease, and became interested in mechanisms and treatment of dental and facial pain. This interest led me to return for further training.


What was the most interesting disorder or condition that you’ve seen closely related to TMD in a patient?

Although the primary signs of TMJ are straight forward to recognize, the secondary or atypical TMJ symptoms often prove deceptive. There are many interesting disorders related to TMD, but one particular case stands out because of its initial severity and timely resolution. The patient was in her mid-30’s and presented with clicking whenever she moved her mandible, and intermittent pain that radiated to her ear. She also had a loud click with swallowing. Panoramic and CT images showed that she had a calcified stylohyoid ligament – a condition called Eagle syndrome. The patient had excision through the extra-oral approach and had full recovery and was free of her pain symptoms.


What has been your most memorable result after treating a patient?

I always appreciate it when patients are so happy that they surprise me with tears and hugs. One of my most memorable results was when I saw the happy face of a teenage patient and her parents after I treated her locked jaw to returned it to normal function. Another memorable case was when I treated a frail 95 year-old patient who had burning mouth pain for several years with no success from previous treatments. She was finally pain free and was able to eat some favorite foods again; it was a joyful and humbling experience.


What is one thing you’d like all patients with symptoms to know?

Early acute problems often turn into chronic life changing chronic pain syndromes. Early treatment can prevent persistent debilitating symptoms.

In some cases, the symptoms of TMJ disorders may go away without treatment. If your symptoms persist, your doctor may recommend a variety of treatment options, often more than one to be done at the same time.


What is one myth you hear about TMJ concerns/treatment that you wish was not so prevalent?

There is a misconception that TMJ disorder is hereditary. It is misleading to believe that if it is genetics that you are helpless. It is important to understand that you can work through the pain and discomfort. This is not about genetics but rather your own individual contributing factors.

In cases when TMJ disorder is attributed to painful teeth clenching or grinding, if you are clenching your teeth it is likely related to the environmental situation. The painful teeth clenching may be involuntary and you are not aware of it, but it is not attributed to your family genes. Recognizing that can give you motivation to solve your condition.


What do you enjoy most about seeing patients for TMD?

I enjoy helping patients restore their oral and jaw functions, reduce pain, and regain the quality of life they enjoyed before the incident that brought them to see me.

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