Many people with temporomandibular joint disorders (TMJ or TMD) spend years trying to get a good explanation of their symptoms. Because TMJ can cause headaches, ringing in the ears, tingling, or numbness in the hands, misdiagnosis of TMJ can happen easily. Unfortunately, this means that many people with TMJ might spend years trying to get a proper diagnosis and effective treatment of their condition. 

At the Michigan Head and Neck Institute, our Detroit TMJ dentists focus on getting your condition successfully diagnosed so that we can understand what TMJ treatments are likely to give the best results. TMJ diagnosis might start with taking a health history, asking about your current symptoms, and feeling your jaw joint and muscles. However, that isn’t always enough to diagnose your TMJ, and we might recommend one or more imaging techniques, including:

  • Panoramic x-rays
  • CBCT
  • MRI
  • Ultrasound

Here is a short rundown on these techniques and what they contribute to successful TMJ diagnosis. 

3d illustration of a skull with an inflamed jaw joint

Panoramic X-Rays

Panoramic x-rays are similar to normal dental x-rays. Instead of focusing on short sections of your jaw like the bitewing x-rays you get at your checkups, though, panoramic x-rays try to capture the entirety of your jaw arches, showing the entire structure from one temporomandibular joint to the other. 

Like other x-rays, panoramic x-rays are great at showing mineralized tissues like bones and teeth. However, they aren’t good at showing the soft tissue of your jaws, such as muscles, tendons, and especially the cushioning disc of the joint. 

In addition to showing the hard structure, a panoramic x-ray shows us your teeth and joints, giving a sense of how the whole system fits together. This is a great place to start and can serve as an orienting image to help us decide whether we need additional imaging. 


CBCT is short for cone beam computed tomography. It is a special type of CT scan that is highly useful for dental imaging. Like other CT scans, CBCT uses a series of x-rays taken at different angles to construct a 3D image of your body. This gives us great images of your tissue, including the jaw joint. 

CBCT offers benefits over traditional CT scans. First, it gives very high-resolution images so we can see even small changes in your temporomandibular joint indicating dysfunction or damage. In addition, CBCT uses less radiation than other CT scans–perhaps as little as 1/400th the radiation you’d get from a traditional CT scan of your jaw. Plus, the CBCT scan is an open instrument. Traditional CT scans surround you, potentially causing claustrophobic feelings. With CBCT, you can look around, so you’re less likely to feel claustrophobic. 


MRI stands for magnetic resonance imaging. It utilizes the magnetic properties of atoms in the body to create its images. A medical MRI is a tubular electromagnet that you lie down in. When turned on, the magnet’s field aligns the body’s particles in a particular way. Then the machine emits radiofrequency waves that temporarily realign the body’s particles. When the radio waves stop, the atoms realign with the tube magnet, faster or slower, depending on the local conditions. In the process, they emit an echo of the radio waves, which the machine can use to construct a 3D image of your body. 

MRI gives extremely detailed images of the temporomandibular joint. MRI also has the benefit of letting us see soft tissue as well as hard tissue like bones and teeth. This makes it especially valuable for imaging dysfunctions involving the cushioning disc, tendons, ligaments, and muscles of the joint. 

However, MRI can be expensive, and it is a bit of a nuisance to do. So your Detroit TMJ dentist likely won’t recommend MRI unless they have good reason to believe it will yield useful information. 


Ultrasound is an imaging technique you might be familiar with if you’ve had one or more children. OB/GYNs commonly use ultrasound to get images of the developing fetus. Ultrasound works like sonar. The detector gives off sound waves, which travel through the body and bounce off structures they encounter. These bounced-back sound waves show us the structure and composition of tissue within the body. 

Ultrasound can image both hard and soft tissue, making it a good tool for getting information about all parts of the temporomandibular joint. It’s an inexpensive imaging technique and isn’t performed in claustrophobic conditions. 

However, the resolution of ultrasound isn’t as good as an MRI, and the effectiveness of the images depends on whether your Detroit TMJ dentist is skilled at reading them. 

Effective TMJ Diagnosis in the Detroit Area

Are you having difficulty figuring out whether TMJ is to blame for your symptoms? Let the Detroit TMJ dentists at the Michigan Head and Neck Institute help. Please call (586) 573-0438 or use our online form to request an appointment at the Michigan Head and Neck Institute, serving the Detroit area from our location in Warren, MI.