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For Parents

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

Date: December 2, 2022

What Parents Should Understand About TMJ/TMD Problems

Though you may have been told that your child has TMJ –  so does every other child! TMJ, when spelled out, stands for the temporomandibular joint, which is a body part – not a disease.


That being said, the TM joints, like all other joints, can become compromised. As a result, pain can be experienced along with limited jaw motion, joint noises during motion, and changes in the way the teeth come together. These symptoms together are known as a TMD problem. Patients with a TMD problem often also experiences headaches, jaw muscle tension and soreness, ear symptoms (such as pain and fullness), and a locked jaw (some call this lockjaw, although that is a different clinical problem).


An accidental injury to the jaw or underlying medical problem can lead to sudden joint inflammation and pain, as well.


But for most children, adolescents, and teens, TMD problems come on slowly. It’s important to understand that the most common cause of TMD problems in young people is consistent overuse behaviors such as gum chewing, nail/cuticle biting, or teeth grinding and/or clenching. Overuse behaviors are commonly driven by the life tensions and worries that accompany school and peer pressure and home stressors that are challenging (and unavoidable).


TMJ problems often result in headaches that are located in the temples and forehead. For some kids, these headaches are so disruptive that school performance is impacted, and they must take pain medications on a daily basis.


Many young patients arrive at our practice who have previously undergone extensive medical workups to rule out serious disease as a cause of their problems. Yet, their pain continued.


If your child fits the above description, we can help. Our over three decades of experience focused on jaw and neck muscles is key to identifying why your child continues to suffer, in spite of nothing serious having been detected before.


Sleep and TMD Problems in Children


A history of poor sleep quality and quantity is frequently uncovered in our young patients. Eight hours is the prescribed amount of sleep for growing kids, but many of them fall short by two to three hours a night on a routine basis. School workloads, after school activities, late-day caffeinated beverages, online temptations, and use of prescription stimulants during the day all can have a profound impact on sleep.


Over the years, we have discovered that poor sleep can lower patient pain thresholds and give rise to headaches, muscle pain and prompt increased levels of teeth grinding and clenching.


Orthodontics and TMD


We see many parents who are concerned that orthodontic treatment could aggravate their child’s pre-existing TMD problem. And many ask whether ongoing or recently completed orthodontics could be a factor in the onset or escalation of their child’s jaw symptoms.


These questions have to be carefully assessed and require not only an understanding of tooth movement and how the jaw functions but an equal understanding of the patient who is worried about moving forward with orthodontics or is already having trouble. The knowledge that TMD problems occur when muscles, ligaments, tendons, and joint tissues become compromised, we can figure out if moving the teeth will (or has already) upset the balance required for comfort to be maintained.


The goal of orthodontics is to achieve both improved function and better aesthetics. How those two goals are achieved can often determine whether a person’s jaw structures remain stable both in the short- and long term. When faced with these scenarios, collaboration with our orthodontic colleagues is an essential part of our ability to address often complicated problems.


Yes, children can (and do) suffer from TMJ problems. If you suspect your child is one of them, you’re in the right place.

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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