At the widest moment of a good wide-mouthed yawn, you might hear and feel a click in your jaw. For most people, a clicking jaw is an occasional annoyance or surprising pop now and then. For others, it's a symptom of a problem that may originate in the jaw but can radiate to other parts of the body, causing pain and discomfort.

Your jaw is one of the most complicated joints in your body. It has up-and-down, side-to-side, and forward sliding ranges of motion. Several muscles tether your jaw to your skull on both sides of your head and control the motions of chewing and talking (and yawning). And the small disc that cushions the bones, the temporomandibular joint (TMJ), acts as a shock absorber or damper. When something gets thrown out of whack in the works of this complex joint, you might experience a temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJD).

But just because your jaw clicks or pops doesn't necessarily mean you have TMJD, and not everyone with TMJD experiences clicking or popping in their jaw. TMJD is one of those nebulous conditions that are frequently misdiagnosed or totally undiagnosed.

The thing is, the way that pain radiates from the temporomandibular joint can change day to day. Episodes of TMJD are not all alike. A person can feel headaches one day, earaches another, and on yet another day a toothache. Sometimes a person may have trouble chewing, their jaw tight, fatigued, tender. And on some days, they may feel all of the above and more.

Say you go in to see your doctor, and you mention how you've been feeling this pain in your ear. Your doc's probably going to shine a light into your ear and have a look around. Finding nothing, the doctor may figure you're overstressed or perhaps getting over a cold that had your ears a bit stopped up. Maybe you visit a chiropractor for frequent headaches, and they may be able to work on your neck and back, but they may not know that it's your jaw that's the root of the problems.

So, how do you know if you have TMJD, and what can you do to take care of your symptoms?

  1. Track your symptoms. Jot down when symptoms hit and describe their severity and nature. You can scribble it onto your calendar, write about it on your blog, or note it in your journal. See if you notice a pattern or triggers.
  2. Check your posture. Slumping, slouching, or any otherwise off-kilter habits of posture can lead to imbalances that put stress on the muscles of your back, shoulders, neck, face, and jaw. Try your best to sit up, imagining a thread lifting the back of your head up and letting your chin lower slightly. Many people jut their chin out, especially as they drive or work on computers. This can stress the neck and exacerbate jaw pain.
  3. Unclench. Catch yourself throughout the day and see if you're clenching your jaw. You might be doing it right now as you read, resting your chin on your hand or leaning forward to better read your monitor. Stress can make us grit our teeth together and hold our whole face in a tense, tight mask. Relax, stretch a bit, and let your jaw hang a bit slack, allowing your teeth to not touch together.
  4. Soothe. Use your fingertips to slowly but firmly stroke the area that's giving you the most pain. Apply heat or ice. Try over-the-counter medication for the pain, but check with your doctor before you do. Give a weary jaw some rest by eating softer foods for a while.
  5. Strengthen. In some cases, TMJD may be triggered by weaknesses in different muscle groups. For instance, think of your abdominal core. A strong core helps to support your back, which in turn supports better posture. Regular physical activity can also make it easier to relax and to handle stress better.
  6. Seek help. If your attempts at self-care do not lead to some relief, take your symptom journal and visit a doctor or a dentist. Be cautious and seek a second opinion if a doctor suggests surgery or any other irreversible treatments.