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Overview of Temporomandibular Disorders

By Noshir R. Mehta, DMD, MDS, MS, Professor; Associate Dean for Global Relations; Senior Advisor, Department of Public Health and Community Servic; Tufts University School of Dental Medicine

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The term temporomandibular disorders is an umbrella term for conditions causing dysfunction of the jaw joint or pain in the jaw and face, including headache. The pain is often in or around the temporomandibular joint (TMJ), including masticatory and other muscles of the head and neck, their fascia, or both. A person is considered to have a temporomandibular disorder only if pain or limitation of motion is severe enough to make them seek professional care.

Temporomandibular disorders typically are multifactorial in origin, but most are related to problems with muscles and ligaments of the temporomandibular joints or internal derangements within the joints themselves.

Internal derangements of the TMJ cause disturbed movement of the mandibular condyle in the glenoid fossa or against the cartilaginous articular disk (see Figure: The temporomandibular joint.). This disk, shaped like a mature red blood cell, serves as a cushion between bone surfaces. Causes for this disturbed movement include clenching and grinding of the teeth, trauma, systemic disorders (eg, arthritis), local or systemic infections, and malocclusion and missing teeth. Even persistent gum chewing can lead to symptoms.

The temporomandibular joint.

The joint is formed by the mandibular condyle and the glenoid fossa of the temporal bone; a cartilaginous articular disk functions as a cushion between the joint surfaces.


  • Clinical evaluation

Disorders of the TMJ must be distinguished from the many conditions that mimic them (see Table: Some Conditions That Mimic Temporomandibular Disorders). Pain exacerbated by finger pressure on the joint when the mouth is opened implicates the TMJ.

Some Conditions That Mimic Temporomandibular Disorders





Tension, migraine, and cluster headaches

Bruxism (causing muscle tension headaches)

Referred pain originating from neck disorders


Postherpetic neuralgia

Reflex sympathetic dystrophy or traumatic neuroma after head or neck surgery

Head and neck trauma


Pain accompanied by hearing problems

Obstruction of the ear canals or eustachian tubes

Joint inflammation

Pain in the head, neck, and other areas of the body

Generalized myofascial pain

Pain, numbness

Metastatic tumors

Pain that radiates to the temporomandibular joint region

Whiplash injuries affecting muscle or cervical spine

Pain that worsens when the patient swallows or turns the head

Cervical spine or muscle disorders

Eagle syndrome (calcified styloid process)


Depressed fracture of the zygomatic arch


Osteochondroma of the coronoid process


Patients are asked to describe the pain and designate painful areas. The muscles of mastication (temporalis, masseters, and medial and lateral pterygoids) and cervical and occipital muscles are palpated for general tenderness and trigger points (spots that radiate pain to another area).

Patients are observed opening the mouth as wide as is comfortable. When patients open and close their mouth with the junction of the maxillary and mandibular central incisors (normally in the midline) lined up against a vertical straight edge, the mandibular midline typically deviates toward the painful side. Palpation and auscultation of the joint during opening and closing may reveal tenderness, catching, clicking, crepitus, or popping.

Condylar motion can best be palpated by placing the 5th fingers into the external ear canals and exerting very gentle forward pressure as patients move the jaw. The average-sized patient can open the mouth at least 40 mm (measured between upper and lower central incisors). To account for differences in patient size, a patient should be able to fit 3 fingers (index, middle, ring) in the mouth on top of each other up to the first joint.

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