The temporomandibular joint (TMJ) is what connects our jaw to our skull. It’s a helpful little joint, allowing us to open and close our mouths. Temporomandibular joint disorder (TMD) is a term used to describe conditions affecting your jaw joint.[ 1 ]These can range from soreness and stiffness to a popping sound when you open your mouth, and even to a locked jaw.
In this guide, we will take a look at what kinds of TMD and TMJ clear aligners can help correct. Hopefully, by the end, you’ll have a better understanding of whether or not clear aligners could provide you with relief from your TMJ.
Table of Contents
Can Clear Aligners Help Correct TMJ?
The short answer? It depends. When looking for a solution for jaw pain, we must first look at the cause of it[ 2 ] — which is easier said than done. When it comes to TMJ, the cause of your condition is what determines which treatment will work best for you. Orthodontic methods like clear aligners can be effective for some cases of TMJ, but not all.
There are many causes of jaw pain and TMD, and some of them are easier to pinpoint than others. If you get whacked in the head by a baseball and then develop jaw pain, it’s pretty clear what’s to blame. But if you grind your teeth while you sleep without realizing it, your jaw pain can be a little more mysterious.
When orthodontia is deemed the right path for TMJ relief, clear aligners will likely be capable of administering treatment. So if those conditions are why you are dealing with jaw pain, then this could be a two birds with one stone sort of situation for you.
Which Causes of TMJ Can Clear Aligners Help With?
The best way to determine whether or not clear aligners can help with your TMJ is figuring out what is causing your pain in the first place. If your cause is one that is related to tooth or jaw position, clear aligners might be able to assist. If it isn’t, you’ll need to pursue other avenues.
When teeth are properly aligned, your jaw can usually open and close without any issues. When our jaws and bites are misaligned, there can be an imbalance of stress on certain areas — including the joints. Over time, this extra burden can really add up, resulting in pain and inflammation.
Clear aligners can correct mild-to-moderate cases of misalignment like overbite, underbite, crossbite, and gaps/crowding in your teeth. Correcting your alignment will put less stress onto your TMJ, likely alleviating inflammation and providing a decrease in your jaw pain.
Bruxism is the fancy name for grinding and clenching your teeth. This can happen during the day or at night while you sleep. Many people don’t even know they clench their jaws or grind their teeth since it happens at night while they’re sleeping or as a stress response. This kind of pressure and irritation can wear your muscles out, causing inflammation and pain.
Aligners work to help bruxism because it’s very hard to grate your teeth together when there’s plastic in the way. The simple fact that clear aligners require 22 hours of wear every day means your teeth won’t be able to grind against each other. This is especially helpful overnight since it’s likely most people who grind their teeth during their sleep are unaware of it.[ 3 ]
Which Causes of TMJ Can’t Clear Aligners Help With?
Severe Arthritis of the Jaw
Arthritis is a chronic inflammation of the joints. In the absence of larger alignment issues, clear aligners aren’t the right answer to this problem. Often, arthritis of the jaw is best treated with physical therapy and medicine. Rarely is major surgery deemed the best course of action in these cases.[ 1 ]
If you suffered an injury to your jaw, the resulting TMJ won’t be best treated with clear aligners. Depending on the severity of your injury, you may need to have oral surgery or facial reconstruction. These surgeries are complex and provide results beyond what clear aligners can do for your bite.[ 1 ]
Mental Health Factors
Stress can be a huge part of TMJ. Even though clear aligners can help alleviate bruxism (which can be caused by stress), they don’t get to the root emotional cause. If you are dealing with depression or anxiety, those stresses can often cause your jaw to clench, consciously or subconsciously (or unconsciously, if you’re asleep). Clear aligners can help with some of the bruxism you may be dealing with, but you will likely find better results addressing the mental health and stress factors at the heart of this.[ 4 ]
Recent studies suggest that there may be a relationship between sleep apnea and TMJ pain. This is a relatively new school of thought, but it may be promising for some patients who have tried orthodontics for their TMJ pain and not had favorable results. [ 5 ]
How Can I Know for Sure My Jaw Pain Is TMJ?
TMJ isn’t always the easiest thing to diagnose, but it’s best to start the process by seeing your dentist. They’ll check your gums and teeth to look for signs of inflammation and excessive wear from clenching or grinding your teeth. If they need more information, X-rays of your jaw may be necessary, or potentially a CT scan or MRI. It all depends on where the root of your problem is located.
How Long Will It Take to Relieve Pain?
Oftentimes, to stop someone from grinding their teeth at night, a dentist will suggest a night guard. A night guard is a retainer-like piece of plastic worn overnight that inhibits your teeth from grinding together.
Clear aligners provide similar protection as a night guard. Though the goals of each appliance are different — an aligner is meant to move your teeth, a night guard is meant to keep them from grinding together — they can often provide similar relief. You’ll need to wear your clear aligners for 22 hours a day, so you’ll have them in all night.
Over time, wearing your aligners overnight will help provide some relief like a night guard would, all while pursuing more permanent relief by aligning your smile. Sometimes it can take longer to notice results. Even with a standard night guard, it can sometimes take anywhere from 6-12 months to have your jaw muscles relax and feel relief, so try to be patient if the results aren’t instantaneous.
Clear aligners are able to correct most misalignments that cause jaw pain and TMJ. So if misalignment is causing your particular case of TMD, then clear aligners could be just what you’ve been looking for to leave that pain behind. If you’re dealing with bruxism, clear aligners can help mitigate much of that damage too since it will almost always be in your mouth — giving your teeth a much-needed break from clenching and grinding.
It may not always be obvious why our jaws hurt, but determining the cause of TMJ is an important part of finding the right solution. Track your symptoms and talk to your dentist about your jaw pain, and hopefully, together, you can find the right treatment option for you.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the difference between TMJ and TMD?
TMJ is technically referring to the joint that connects your jaw to your skull (temporomandibular joint) but has colloquially come to also refer to jaw pain. TMD is the more technically correct way to refer to jaw pain (temporomandibular disorder), but these are often used interchangeably.
What are other treatments for TMJ/TMD?
This depends on the causes of your TMJ. Treatments can vary in intensity and include DIY jaw stretches, acupuncture, behavioral therapy, and joint injections. It is very rare for TMJ to result in major surgery.
What is the difference between a night guard and a retainer?
A night guard is created with the sole purpose of saving you from sleep bruxism (grinding your teeth at night) and made from durable plastic. A retainer is worn after teeth straightening treatment to make sure your teeth don’t scoot back into their old positions. Retainers can be made of metal or plastic.
How do I mitigate the pain of TMJ?
While you’re dealing with the symptoms of TMJ, it can help to switch to soft foods for a little while.[ 7 ] Since jaw pain is often linked to stress, typical de-stressing activities are likely to help you to unclench your jaw and relax. Check with your dentist about which over-the-counter medicine will work best for you.
I have already had orthodontic treatment and I still have jaw pain; what are my options?
It can be hard to determine the cause of TMJ, but research shows it can be caused by stress and sleep apnea.[ 7 ] Stress-caused TMJ can be handled in many different ways, including nutritional changes, cognitive behavioral therapy, and exercise. Sleep apnea can be diagnosed by some dental professionals and doctors who specialize in sleep medicine. Be sure to talk to your dentist about what your options may be moving forward.
Is it possible to not receive treatment for TMJ?
Yes, it is. TMJ is very common and isn’t necessarily anything to panic about if it is mild and occasional. Even those bizarre clicking or popping sounds from your jaw (though alarming) do not necessarily mean something terrible is happening. Talk to your dentist about your symptoms to determine what action should be taken, if any.