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Can Mouth Guards Cure TMJ?

Author: Donald Tanenbaum DDS MPH - Board-Certified Orofacial Pain Specialist at New York TMJ & Orofacial Pain

Date: January 23, 2023

Patients will often come to me suffering from symptoms of TMJ and looking for solutions that don’t involve medication or surgery. Symptoms such as facial pain, headaches in the temples, inability to open to the mouth widely, sensitive teeth, or aching and throbbing jaw muscles can be unbearable. There are numerous remedies, for jaw related symptoms that include massages, home exercises, physical therapy, modified diets, and changes in daytime behaviors/postures. At times an oral appliance is an important part of care. These devices are commonly used for the treatment of TMJ problems and can be used in a number of different ways.

What is an oral appliance?

An oral appliance is a device that fits over your teeth with the intent of reducing tooth wear, tooth mobility, tooth sensitivity, muscle pain and soreness and joint pain and instability. At times but not frequently these devices are designed to “align the jaw.”  They can also be used to discourage some of the daytime behaviors many patients don’t realize they’re doing, such as resting their teeth together, clenching their teeth, or biting their nails or cuticles. These appliances can be worn at night and/or during the day

In general the intent of these appliances is based on the problems experienced by patients.

Night guards: Most commonly these appliances are chosen by dentists to address tooth wear, soreness, and mobility that occur as a result of night clenching or grinding of the teeth. Many patients that develop tooth wear do not even realize that they have a problem and often deny grinding their teeth at night. These devices when used in patients without active symptoms (just wear of the teeth) don’t require much adjustment and should be brought by the patient when they return to the dentist for tooth cleaning visits. Typically these devices are custom fit so that they are retentive, not too thick, and modifiable over time. Over the counter devices sold in pharmacies and online are for the most part inadequate, as they are often too thick, poorly retentive, and inadequately cover all of the teeth. As a result these devices can often prompt more clenching, and/or allow tooth shift.

Night appliances to address TMJ problems: Based on the specific jaw problem that is diagnosed (muscle soreness, morning temporal headaches, limited jaw opening in the morning…etc) oral appliances at night are designed to reduce overuse and loading forces to the TM Joints and jaw muscles. The biting surface of the appliance is therefore designed and modified to most efficiently address the problems at hand. Most commonly the biting surfaces are flat but, at times, inclines and ramps are used to confront unstable joint ligaments and displaced discs. When used in patients with active symptoms, these appliances require frequent modifications requiring patient follow-up visits.

Day appliances to address TMJ Problems: At times there is necessity to have a patient wear an appliance during the day. For the most part these appliances are needed when there is extreme instability in a TM joint that has led to clicking, locking, and pain problems. These appliances are not worn all day and virtually never during chewing. At other times, oral appliances worn during the day hours can be used to get in the way of day behaviors and/or remind patients that during the day the jaw should be hanging in a rest position with the teeth apart.

How about oral appliances to re-align the jaw? This concept of jaw re-alignment to address a TMJ problem remains controversial. To date there is no science to support the concept that a poor bite or mal-aligned jaw is responsible for the emergence of TMJ symptoms. At most a bad bite or mal-aligned jaw may be a risk factor but with no more weight than other risk factors such as; female gender, gum chewing, clenching, night grinding, or stress. As long as there remain millions of people with bad bites and asymmetric jaws without symptoms this concept has to be viewed with skepticism. In addition, if an appliance were to be made to re-align the jaw, it would require the patient to bite or rest on it when in the mouth to hold the jaw in the ‘better’ position. This action of course would violate the principle that the jaws should hang at rest during the day. Clearly this option must be chosen with great care.

From an overall perspective the concept of curing a TMJ problem with an oral appliance is probably a bit of a stretch. Their use however is a critical part of TMJ treatment!

These appliances are extremely helpful in reducing the damage from night clenching or grinding. They work by diminishing the forces exerted on the TM joints and by diminishing the amount of contracture that can be generated in the jaw muscles.  Night guards are most effective when custom fit, and adjusted over the course of time. Or you can purchase a generic set at a drug store. Obviously, custom-made night guards that have been conformed to your individual bite-print are more effective in treating TMJ symptoms, but the trade-off is that they’re more expensive.

  • Bite Splints: This form of therapy uses a mouth guard to physically correct the bite, rather than just relieve pain or reduce damage to the teeth. Bite splints are best for you if you have more extreme TMJ symptoms that need correcting in order to have a hope for any long-term relief. The primary difference between a bite splint and a night guard is that bite splints are worn around the clock, 24-7. It’s a full commitment to correcting the misalignment issues that are causing your TMJ.

So, can mouth guards cure your TMJ? The short answer is: Yes. In some cases, particularly with corrective bite splints, you can realign your bite over the course of time and eliminate those painful TMJ symptoms. In other cases, mouth guards can relieve your symptoms to the point where you feel very little pain or discomfort at all. Stop in to our office and see Dr. Donald T. Tanenbaum for a consultation, fitting, and to end your suffering today.

Learn more about Dr. Tanenbaum’s unique qualifications and expertise, here.

Live or work in New York City or on Long Island? You can schedule a consultation with me here or call 212-265-0110

DISCLAIMER: The advice offered in response to your questions is intended to be informational only and generic in nature. Namely, we in no way offer a definitive diagnosis or specific treatment recommendation for your particular situation. Our intent is solely educational and our responses to your actual questions serve as a springboard to discussion of a variety of dental topics that come up in a day-to-day dental practice. Any advice offered is no substitute for proper evaluation and care by a qualified professional.

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