The temporomandibular joint, otherwise known as TMJ, is a vital joint in the body as it connects the jaw bone to the skull.
Unfortunately, complications can often occur, leading to TMJ disorders.
A common treatment to relieve or manage the symptoms involve a splint.
What are TMJ splints?
A TMJ splint is essentially a type of oral appliance or bite guard, and it is designed to fit over the lower and upper teeth, or sometimes both.
Usually, TMJ splints are made out of hard acrylic, but there are some softer ones available.
There are two main types of splints: stabilization splints and repositioning splints.
A stabilization splint is typically worn at night while the patient sleeps.
They cover all of the teeth in order to help reduce abnormal muscle activity, which in turn fights off grinding and clenching.
Stabilization splints can sometimes be referred to as maxillary splints.
They prevent the upper and lower teeth from touching, which can not only help with pain from TMJ disorder, but also save the enamel from chipping away.
As for the repositioning splints, they are intended to correct any bite occlusions.
Some, like anterior repositioning splints, moves the lower jaw either forward or backward.
This can permanently change a patient's bite.
However, there is a TMJ repositioning theory that explains how changing the condylar position can improve the joint function.
Even so, there are recommendations against repositioning TMJ splints since they cause permanent changes to a person's jaw and bite, a factor that can negatively impact a patient's health.
For patients that want to wear something throughout the day, they may consider "flat plane" stabilization or repositioning splints.
These are designed to not interfere with speech as much.
TMJ splints should be fitted by a dentist so that it fits the patient appropriately.
This is to ensure that there is no further aggravating or straining of the jaw, which can make the TMJ disorder worse.
When a splint is made, a dentist will create an impression of the patient's mouth using material such as dental putty.
After this impression is set, it is handed over to a lab where the custom splint is created.
Custom splints from a dentist can be sanded or adjusted accordingly.
Over-the-counter TMJ splints
Although acquiring a customized splint from a dentist is most ideal, not every patient is capable of this due to insurance or other financial issues.
In this case, a patient can head over to their local pharmacy to purchase an over-the-counter (OTC) TMJ splint at a much more economically-friendly price.
Patients may see these types of splints referred to as bite guards or night guards in the pharmacy.
So, what are TMJ splints from the store?
The materials vary, but they are guards that feature an impression and boil system.
Boiling softens the guard so that a patient can bite down and form a proper impression.
There are both hard and soft OTC TMJ guards. Soft ones are generally best for those with mild symptoms such as light grinding.
Hard bite guards may better serve those with more severe night grinding symptoms.
Most of the time, these OTC guards are constructed in a one-size-fit-all fashion. Because of this, not all of them will fit correctly to all patients.
This can lead to having a TMJ guard that is too bulky, thus difficult to get into the mouth, or too small, which can lead to it falling or slipping out of place.
These factors are why OTC guards for TMJ relief are not generally recommended.
Even so, many patients do use them for short-term relief until they can receive a customized guard.
How exactly do TMJ splints work?
How TMJ splints work depends largely on the exact splint.
As stated before, stabilization splints prevent the teeth from grinding together. This occurs in two fashions: anterior guidance and canine guidance.
With anterior guidance, it makes sure that when your jaw slides forward, your front teeth are the only ones touching.
Canine guidance ensures that your canine teeth are all that touches when your jaw slides side to side.
The repositioning TMJ splints guides your jaw into a more improved position.
This is done by moving it either forward or backward.
Anterior repositioning splints in particular hold the lower jaw forward and prevents the teeth from touching. By doing so, it does not allow for much freedom of movement.
This type of splint aims at recapturing a slipped TMJ disk.
It does so by bringing the jaw forward enough to sit properly under the disk.
OTC TMJ guards function much like stabilization splints.
They are intended to keep the teeth separated so the patient doesn't experience any grinding or clenching throughout the night.
When it comes to the overall effectiveness on how TMJ splints work, regardless of the type, those over at the TMJ Associations do mention that the long-term results are inconclusive.
Benefits of using a TMJ splint
When patients wear TMJ splints, the ligaments and muscles in the jaw get an opportunity to relax.
Patients can see a reduction of pressure around the joint and muscles.
Pressure is removed thanks to keeping the teeth from grinding, as is in the case with stabilization TMJ splints.
This can further be useful to people who have fillings, chipped teeth, or even dentures.
By cutting down on grinding and clenching, people can keep their dentures and fillings safe and prevent any further damage to the teeth.
Since headaches are another major symptom to TMJ disorder, there are reports that splints can help reduce or even eliminate these discomforts.
Another advantage of wearing a TMJ splint is that it simply encourages proper setting of the jaw and bite.
It can encourage patients to stretch the jaw less while yawning or biting lighter while chewing.
TMJ splints can be a better alternative to other more invasive treatments as well.
Perhaps a dentist recommends surgery for a severe TMJ disorder, but a patient isn't willing or cannot afford it.
Wearing a TMJ splint can help alleviate symptoms to avoid such procedures.
Of course, TMJ splints do come with some risks.
Pain and symptoms can worsen instead, or a patient's bite can harmfully change.
That is why it's important to wear a properly fitted TMJ splint and only wear it for the specified amount of time recommended by a dentist.