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Arthritis of the Temporomandibular Joint (TMJ)

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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Infectious arthritis, traumatic arthritis, osteoarthritis, RA, and secondary degenerative arthritis can affect the temporomandibular joint.

Infectious arthritis

Infection of the temporomandibular joint (TMJ) may result from direct extension of adjacent infection or hematogenous spread of bloodborne organisms (see Acute Infectious Arthritis). The area is inflamed, and jaw movement is limited and painful. Local signs of infection associated with evidence of a systemic disease or with an adjacent infection suggest the diagnosis. X-ray results are negative in the early stages but may show bone destruction later. If suppurative arthritis is suspected, the joint is aspirated to confirm the diagnosis and to identify the causative organism. Diagnosis must be made rapidly to prevent permanent joint damage.

Treatment includes antibiotics, proper hydration, pain control, and motion restriction. Parenteral penicillin G is the drug of choice until a specific bacteriologic diagnosis can be made on the basis of culture and sensitivity testing. For MRSA infections of the oral structures, IV vancomycin is the antibiotic of choice. Suppurative infections are aspirated or incised. Once the infection is controlled, passive jaw-opening exercises help prevent scarring and limitation of motion.

Traumatic arthritis

Rarely, acute injury (eg, due to difficult tooth extraction or endotracheal intubation) may lead to arthritis of the TMJ. Pain, tenderness, and limitation of motion occur. Diagnosis is based primarily on history. X-ray results are negative except when intra-articular edema or hemorrhage widens the joint space. Treatment includes NSAIDs, application of heat, a soft diet, and restriction of jaw movement.


The TMJ may be affected, usually in people > 50 yr. Occasionally, patients complain of stiffness, grating, or mild pain. Crepitus results from a hole worn through the disk, causing bone to grate on bone. Joint involvement is generally bilateral. X-rays or CT may show flattening and lipping of the condyle, suggestive of dysfunctional change. Treatment is symptomatic. A mouth guard worn during the night or day may help alleviate pain and reduce grating sounds in patients with missing teeth (which can cause their jaws to come closer together when biting). (See also Osteoarthritis (OA).)

Rheumatoid arthritis

The TMJ is affected in > 17% of adults and children with RA, but it is usually among the last joints involved. Pain, swelling, and limited movement are the most common findings. In children, destruction of the condyle results in mandibular growth disturbance and facial deformity. Ankylosis may follow. X-rays of the TMJ are usually negative in early stages but later show bone destruction, which may result in an anterior open-bite deformity. The diagnosis is suggested by TMJ inflammation associated with polyarthritis and is confirmed by other findings typical of the disease.

Treatment is similar to that of RA in other joints (see Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) : Treatment). In the acute stage, NSAIDs may be given, and jaw function should be restricted. A mouth guard or splint worn at night is often helpful. When symptoms subside, mild jaw exercises help prevent excessive loss of motion. Surgery is necessary if ankylosis develops but should not be done until the condition is quiescent.

Secondary degenerative arthritis

This type of arthritis usually develops in people aged 20 to 40 yr after trauma or in people with persistent myofascial pain syndrome. It is characterized by limited opening of the mouth, unilateral pain during jaw movement, joint tenderness, and crepitus. When it is associated with myofascial pain syndrome, symptoms wax and wane. Diagnosis is based on x-rays, which generally show condylar flattening, lipping, spurring, or erosion. Unilateral joint involvement helps distinguish secondary degenerative arthritis from osteoarthritis.

Treatment is conservative, as it is for myofascial pain syndrome, although arthroplasty or high condylectomy may be necessary. An occlusal splint (mouth guard) usually relieves symptoms. The splint is worn constantly, except during meals, oral hygiene, and appliance cleaning. When symptoms resolve, the length of time that the splint is worn each day is gradually reduced. Intra-articular injection of corticosteroids may relieve symptoms but may harm the joint if repeated often.

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