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How To Get Relief From TMJ Pain When Nothing Is Working

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

Date: April 20, 2022

When exercises, medication, nightguards, relaxation techniques, and a soft diet don’t provide relief from TMJ pain, injections for TMJ may be the next step.

What Causes TMJ/TMD Problems?

Note: TMJ stands for Temporomandibular Joint, which is your jaw joint, and TMD stands for Temporomandibular Joint Dysfunction, which refers to jaw problems. Because most people use the catchall term “TMJ” to describe all TMDs, I use the term TMJ in this article.

Anything that causes your jaws to be overworked and fatigued, such as continually clenching your teeth, biting your nails during the day, or clenching and grinding at night, puts you at high risk for TMJ. However, your TMJ problem could stem from a history of trauma or a medical or dental procedure that sprained your jaw joints or strained the muscles and tendons. In some cases, systemic disease or a disorder can predispose you to experience inflammation, pain and instability in your jaw joints, ligaments, and/or tendons.

Regardless of the cause of your TMJ, if your jaw’s in trouble, you want treatment that will provide relief.

First-Line Therapies For Relief From TMJ Pain

I’ve been a TMJ doctor and orofacial pain specialist for nearly four decades. During that time, I’ve treated thousands of patients and have at my disposal many first-line therapies to help my patients feel better and get better (once an accurate diagnosis has been made). They include:

  • Nightguards or specifically designed oral appliances that address teeth clenching, grinding, and joint instability during sleep
  • At-home exercises
  • Anti-inflammatory and/or muscle relaxant medications
  • Stress-reducing activities such as meditation or yoga
  • Adherence to a soft diet
  • Reducing or eliminating the daytime behaviors that overwork the jaws
  • Physical therapy

While most of my patients respond well to the first-line therapies above, you may be someone for whom the above strategies simply don’t work. What’s next for you?

massage for TMJ, temporalis and masseter

Injections For TMJ

I’m sure you’ve read about people having BOTOX® injections for TMJ problems, but BOTOX® is not the only injectable that can help. In fact, it is not the right choice for many patients. The good news is there are injections for TMJ that are less risky and can be very helpful to provide relief from TMJ pain. They include jaw muscle injections, injections into the tendons or ligaments, and injections into the temporomandibular joint itself.

Jaw Muscle Injections For TMJ

  • Trigger point injections, sometimes called dry needling, can help reduce the muscle spasms, tension, associated pain and limited jaw motion experienced by many TMJ sufferers. They’re also designed to reduce the likelihood of “referred” pain when irritated jaw muscles refer pain to other locations such as your teeth, ears and sinuses. With trigger point injections, the mechanical prodding of the muscle with a needle creates the benefit. Some providers inject a bit of Lidocaine, a local anesthetic, to make the procedure more comfortable. Trigger point injections are typically repeated several times before the spasms and muscle tension release. When combined with exercises and other home care techniques, trigger point injections for TMJ can be very effective for people whose problems have not responded to first-line treatments.

Tendon and Ligament Injections For TMJ

Sometimes first-line therapies fail because pain is due to stubborn and persistent inflammation in a jaw tendon or ligament. In this case, prolotherapy and steroid injections are often effective:

  • Prolotherapy, also known as proliferative therapy, involves a combination of dextrose and an anesthetic. Dextrose is a natural irritant that can kick-start your body’s natural healing response and the anesthetic helps deaden pain. When injected directly into damaged tendons and/or ligaments prolotherapy can strengthen and repair them. When combined with exercises and home care strategies, prolotherapy injections for TMJ can provide a great deal of relief from TMJ pain and also promote healing. The injections typically need to be repeated several times over a few months for full effectiveness.
  • Steroid injections into irritated tendons and ligaments can also provide life-changing relief from TMJ pain and usually are administered in a series. If overused, however, steroids carry some serious risks, so your steroid injections should be administered only under the guidance of an experienced clinician.

Injections Into The Jaw Joint

Some TMJ problems stem from inflammation or structural compromises in the jaw joint itself. They can’t move their jaw without severe pain and experience mechanical symptoms as well, such as clicking, popping, or locking and gravelly sounds emanating from the joint.   Injections directly into the temporomandibular joint can often help. There are two types of joint injections for TMJ: steroids and hyaluronic acid.

  • Steroid injections are frequently used to ease pain in the knees, hips, shoulders, etc. So, it’s no surprise that steroids can also provide relief from pain in the TM joint. Depending upon the severity of your underlying joint problem, one shot may be all you need for life-changing pain relief. If your pain doesn’t diminish with just one injection, you may need a series. Proceed with caution because, as I mentioned above, steroid injections carry risks when overused.
  • Hyaluronic acid injections into the jaw joint are another strategy. Your jaw joint contains a substance called synovial fluid, which provides nourishment and shock absorption to keep them healthy. When there’s a change in the volume or quality of synovial fluid due to jaw overuse or trauma, the result can be pain and joint noises. When hyaluronic acid, a lubricating substance, is injected into the joint, the relief from TMJ pain and noises can be profound. Research suggests that hyaluronic acid also provides an anti-inflammatory effect. The only drawback to hyaluronic acid injections for TMJ is that the positive effects can be short-lived.

New Injections For TMJ Are On The Horizon!

Many research efforts show that over 30 million Americans have TMJ/TMD problems. Some problems are minor, but others can lead to life-compromising pain and jaw function limitations. There is a great need for earlier diagnoses and pain and discomfort management for people who suffer. There’s also a need for therapies that are specifically designed for treating stubborn and persistent TMJ problems.

Fortunately, emerging therapies such as stem cell and blood component injections may be able to regenerate new tissue in TM joints, ligaments and tendons. The research is very promising, and I suspect in the near future, these new and innovative types of injections will become commonplace for treating TMJ/TMD problems and provide the kind of healing that has not been achievable with other established injection therapies.

The Last Word

If you’re suffering from jaw problems, I know what you’re going through. Orofacial pain specialists like me have the knowledge to accurately diagnose your problem and the skills to help you find relief from TMJ pain, whether by first-line therapies or injections for TMJ. To find an orofacial pain specialist in your area, go to the American Academy Of Orofacial Pain and search for a physician with diplomate credentials.

Feel Better!


Further Reading:

All About BOTOX® For TMJ

What Is Referred Pain?

The Connection Between Pain & Sleep

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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