What is the difference between TMJ and TMD?

By: Restore TMJ & Sleep Therapy | Published 03/15/2023


Experiencing head pain, pain in the jaw, or facial discomfort can be a stressful and tiring experience. Many people who are facing symptoms associated with their head, neck, and jaw discover terms like TMJ and TMD as possible causes, but understanding the differences between the terms is not always clear.

In order to understand what TMJ and TMD are, as well as what that means for people who are experiencing pain or discomfort, it is important to first learn about how the jaw functions. From there, it’s easier to see when something isn’t working like it’s supposed to and what kinds of doctors can help.


How the Jaw Normally Functions


When people think of the movement of their mouth, they often think of their jawbone simply going up and down. In reality, the mouth structure is made up of the mandible— the jaw part that moves up and down—and the maxilla. The maxilla is stationary and contains the top arch of teeth. The motion of moving the mandible up, down, and around to make contact with or avoid the maxilla makes chewing, speaking, and even facial expressions possible.

The reason that the jaw can do all of this complex movement is because of the temporomandibular joints (TMJ) located on each side of the face by the ears. The mandible connects to these joints, and they move in unison, allowing for smooth opening and closing. This process is painless and should not include popping or grinding noises in patients with a properly functioning TMJ.


Is there a difference between TMJ and TMD?


TMJ and TMD are closely related (and some sources might even use them interchangeably), but there are some important differences.


Learning More About Your TMJ


“TMJ” typically refers only to your temporomandibular joint. You can feel this joint right in front of the bottom of your earlobe. You have two TMJs—one on each side of the face. They are bilateral, which means that they are across from each other but working together. In other words, you can’t move one TMJ without moving the other.

The TMJs are also synovial. This term describes how they move. The TMJs are surrounded by smooth, strong synovial material that allows them to slide freely and pivot as necessary, allowing you to move your jaw forward, backward, and even side to side a little, on top of being able to open and close.

All of these movements are natural for the TMJ. However, when something goes wrong in this area, people can start to experience pain or discomfort. They might also find that their jaw can’t move like it used to; maybe it feels like it gets “stuck” on opening or closing. The causes for these symptoms can vary and fall underneath a wider umbrella called TMD: temporomandibular disorders.


The Diagnosis of TMD


Pain, tenderness, and dysfunction in the TMJs can fall into one of more than 30 temporomandibular disorders, or TMDs. Such disorders can be caused by a wide range of potential issues, which include how the muscles are working and the physiology of the joint itself.

In cases where the muscular structure surrounding the TMJ is the problem, you might feel like your jaw is always tired or tight. The masseter, which is the large muscle that is primarily responsible for opening and closing your jaw, might experience sharp, zapping pain or a constant dull ache. Individuals may experience these symptoms differently,  but they all stem from the muscle being injured or overexerted.

Conversely, TMDs caused by disorders of the joint itself can have a number of origins. The muscles may function normally in different scenarios, but the joint might be out of place. For example, the smooth disc that enables the joint to open and close smoothly might be displaced, causing the bone to grind against itself. TMDs can also develop as a result of  joint degeneration or arthritis in the TMJ.

A diagnosis for a temporomandibular joint disorder must be made by a professional. Which professional is best for you will come down to the symptoms that you are experiencing. Many times, a dentist can get you started, but a dedicated TMJ specialist often has the resources and expertise to notice specific details for a more accurate evaluation.


Does TMJ pain mean I have a TMD?


The term “TMJ” is often used as shorthand for a dysfunction of the facial joints and resulting pain, but pain in the TMJ does not always mean you have a TMD. TMJ pain can arise on its own and go away on its own depending on the cause.


The Symptoms of TMJ Pain


If you are experiencing pain in the TMJ area, you might be feeling nervous about having a larger disorder. However, the symptoms of generalized TMJ pain are often distinct from those of temporomandibular joint disorders. TMJ pain can include:

  • Soreness in the muscles surrounding the TMJ
  • A feeling of tightness in the jaw
  • Aching when opening the mouth
  • Pain in the ear(s)


If these are the symptoms that you are experiencing, you may be suffering from a brief TMJ injury. If you have recently experienced a blow to the face, chewed on something very hard or chewy, or had work done at the dentist that required your mouth to be open for a long time, this TMJ pain is often temporary. Pain that does not reduce on its own after a few days or that presents with additional symptoms may cross from TMJ pain into signs of an underlying TMD.


The Symptoms of TMD


Temporomandibular joint disorders have a variety of causes, which means that the symptoms can also vary widely. In general, however,these TMD symptoms will be more severe or unpredictable than temporary TMJ pain. They might include:

  • Severe or intolerable pain in the jaw area
  • Popping, clicking, or grinding noises when moving the jaw
  • An inability to open or close the jaw _ (Jaw Lock)
  • Feeling like the jaw is hitting a “snag” when opening or closing
  • Constant headaches
  • Pain behind the eyes
  • Pain in the ears
  • Pain that extends into the neck
  • A change in the way your teeth come together (your bite)
  • Teeth grinding or clenching (bruxism) at night


Many of the symptoms of a TMD continue to worsen with time and may not respond to over-the-counter pain relief options. This is in contrast to the temporary muscle overexertion that causes TMJ pain,improves gradually over a few days to a week, and may benefit from TMD pain relief medications.


What do I do if I have pain in my TMJ?


If you are experiencing pain or discomfort and don’t know what to do next, you should seek a professional opinion. The type of professional you see will depend on your symptoms and how confident you are that the origin of your pain or discomfort is the temporomandibular joint.


If you’re mostly experiencing pain in the ear or neck, your first stop might be to an ENT (ear, nose, and throat doctor), also called an otolaryngologist. Some symptoms of TMJ pain or a TMD resemble problems with the ears and sinuses, areas an ENT specializes in. However, this type of doctor will not typically have experience treating the TMJ specifically  or identifying underlying conditions that might affect it. They can help you rule out other conditions, however, like an ear infection.

If you’ve noticed that you are grinding or clenching  your teeth at night because of your pain or discomfort, a visit to a dentist could provide some answers. Dentists can prescribe you a custom mouthguard to wear at night that may help alleviate jaw pain caused by bruxism, or teeth grinding and clenching. However, if your TMJ pain is being caused by a structural issue with the bone or a muscular problem, a dentist may not have the experience and resources for more comprehensive treatment. 


How can a TMJ specialist help with my TMJ pain?


A TMJ specialist board-certified in orofacial pain is often the best choice for resolving TMD symptoms and treating TMJ pain. They have expertise in a variety of TMD causes and understand how the joint and muscles function, allowing them to treat the root of the problem as well as the symptoms. They also have access to a broad range of diagnostic imaging tools and often work closely with medical professionals in other disciplines to coordinate treatment plans. 


A TMJ specialist can develop and direct comprehensive, personalized treatment solutions for your condition and your symptoms that may include anything from thorough scans of your TMJ area to orthotic devices, surgery, physical therapy, and pain or stress management. 


Treat TMJ Pain and TMD at REstore TMJ & Sleep Therapy


Whether you have been suffering from TMJ pain for a long time or are just beginning to notice potential signs of a TMD, you deserve relief. Dr. Kathrine S. Phillips and Dr. Jaya Mangal at REstore TMJ & Sleep Therapy are board-certified by the American Board of Orofacial Pain and offer comprehensive diagnostic imaging that can pinpoint the cause of your pain and discomfort and improve your quality of life. You can take our self-guided TMJ quiz and fill out a convenient appointment request form, or call today at 281-296-6797 to schedule a no-obligation consultation. 

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