TMJ – What Is a Clicking Jaw Joint?

If you have a clicking jaw, it may mean that you have a problem with your temporomandibular joints, or TMJ. Millions of people suffer from TMJ dysfunction, and it is estimated that as many as 75% of the population may experience symptoms of TMJ discomfort.

TMD, or temporomandibular joint dysfunction, is a complex pathology affecting either of the TM joints or the craniofacial muscles of the head, neck, and upper back. It is known as the “Great Impostor” to many practicing dentists due to the complexities of the pathology and the difficulties diagnosing the source of the problem.

When you have a clicking jaw, it means that the jaw is momentarily displaced in the proper joint position, and upon opening, the jaw clicks back into the proper position.

Even though a clicking jaw may not come with any pain, it may be the beginning of a much more serious problem as over time the jaw may lock, thus creating difficulties with chewing and speaking. Often times there may be pain associated with a locked jaw since the muscles are not in harmony with an abnormally functioning jaw.

What Happens When My Jaw Clicks?

To understand what happens when your jaw clicks, you must first understand how the jaw works during normal function. The jaw joint is a complex joint that contains a joint head, or condyle, that is wrapped in a joint disc. The disc is the protective covering of the bony condyle, and lubricates the joint during jaw opening. When the TMJ is displaced (usually toward the back), the disc gets popped forward as there is no longer any space for it in its normal position.

Where the disc used to be in a normal TMJ, it now rests just to the front or the side of the joint head, and during opening the disc will click back on. This is the noise or pop that you will sometimes hear.

Over time, as the cartilage-like disc gets more stretched out due to trauma, or continued wear as it sits out of place, the disc can be permanently out of place. This is known as a disc displacement with no reduction, or more commonly called “lock jaw.”

As you can see, a clicking jaw joint is in the early stages of a severe disc displacement or lock jaw. Even though there may not be pain associated with a clicking jaw, the problems of the TMJ have begun.

If the TMJ is not taken care of, the jaw click may eventually stretch out the cartilage disc until it completely severs from the surrounding connective tissue, thus leaving no protective covering around the condylar joint head. If this were to happen, the joint shape will change as the bones will be rubbing together and typically this is associated with severe pain.