Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) abnormalities cannot be reliably assessed by a clinical examination. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) may depict joint abnormalities not seen with any other imaging method and thus is the best method to make a diagnostic assessment of the TMJ status. In patients with temporomandibular joint disorder (TMD) referred for diagnostic imaging the predominant TMJ finding is internal derangement related to disc displacement. This finding is significantly more frequent than in asymptomatic volunteers, and occurs in up to 80% of patients consecutively referred for TMJ imaging. Moreover, certain types of disc displacement seem to occur almost exclusively in TMD patients, namely complete disc displacements that do not reduce on mouth opening. Other intra-articular abnormalities may additionally be associated with the disc displacement, predominantly joint effusion (which means more fluid than seen in any asymptomatic volunteer) and mandibular condyle marrow abnormalities (which are not seen in volunteers). These conditions seem to be closely related. Nearly 15% of TMD patients consecutively referred for TMJ MRI will have joint effusion, of whom about 30% will show bone marrow abnormalities. In a surgically selected material of joints with histologically documented bone marrow abnormalities nearly 40% showed joint effusion. Disc displacement is mostly bilateral, but joint effusion seems to be unilateral or with a lesser amount of fluid in the contralateral joint. Abnormal bone marrow is also mostly unilateral. Many patients have unilateral pain or more pain on one side. In a regression analysis the self-reported in-patient TMJ pain side difference was positively dependent on TMJ effusion and condyle marrow abnormalities, but negatively dependent on cortical bone abnormalities. Of the joints with effusion only one fourth showed osteoarthritis. Thus, there seems to be a subgroup of TMD patients showing more severe intra-articular pathology than disc displacement alone, and mostly without osteoarthritis. It should, however, be emphasized that patients with TMJ effusion and/or abnormal bone marrow in the mandibular condyle seem to constitute only a minor portion (less than one fourth) of consecutive TMD patients referred for diagnostic TMJ imaging. The majority of patients have internal derangement related to disc displacement, but without accompanying joint abnormalities. In patients with rheumatoid arthritis and other arthritides TMJ involvement may mimick the more common TMDs. Using MRI it is possible, in most cases, to distinguish these patients from those without synovial proliferation.

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