Updated: Aug 29, 2021
Does your jaw ache? Is there pain in and around your ear? Does chewing trigger tenderness or discomfort? You could have TMJ dysfunction; a problem with your temporomandibular joint, where your jaw bone meets your skull. This has become an increasingly common problem that presents in our practice. The heightened stress associated with the COVID-19 pandemic has increased tension and torment markedly. Usually experienced only in adults, the lengthy psychological strain of the past year has shifted the demographic: younger people are consulting us with this condition too. But why does it happen? What causes the pain? And what can you do to recover? Let’s start at the beginning… What is the temporomandibular joint?
If you follow your jawline upward while opening and closing your mouth, you will feel a spot where movement occurs. This is your temporomandibular joint or TMJ. It is an incredible and unusual joint.
The name relates to the bones that form it; the temporal bone of the skull on one side and the head of mandible (jaw) on the other. In normal joints like your knee or your hip, each bone is lined with cartilage with fluid lubricating the space in between. In the TMJ, though, there is an articular disc. This small but strong tissue acts as the pivot point so your jaw can chomp and relax, grind and move in a smooth and pain-free manner. There are three important ligaments that connect and stabilize this joint. They stretch from one bone to the other. Like a tough rubber band, they provide some give and strength. While the ligaments are important for stability, it’s the muscles that allow for movement. There are a number of muscle that connect from one side of the joint to the other. Where they attach and insert determines what they do; the movements they induce. The masseter and temporalis muscles elevate your mandible. They close your mouth. These two muscles are often involved in TMJ dysfunction. Tension and clenching overwork them, particularly the masseter muscles. If you place your fingers on the sides of your lower face and clench, the masseters will be felt activating. When you rest your fingers on your temples and contract, it’s the temporalis muscles you might feel tighten. TMJ dysfunction: What goes wrong? When most people think about the cause of painful joints, injury, overuse, or wear and tear spring to mind. But while we’re aware that our knees bend when we walk and our wrists move as we type, we often give little thought to the jaw. Yet, it’s been said that the TMJ is the most frequently used joint in the body. Every time we talk or chew, yawn or clench, this joint moves. When we also clench and often, the masseter and temporalis muscles become hypertonic (“too tight”). This can cause joint and tissue damage. Research has shown that TMJ dysfunction is due to excessive mechanical stresses loaded onto this joint (yes, by these two muscles). This triggers an increase in the generation of free radicals and inflammatory chemicals, and activates enzymes that breakdown — degrade — tissues in this area. In essence, excess pressure forced through the TMJ causes it to become inflamed, sore and damaged. Why does this happen? That’s an important question! As people internalize their stress they often clench their jaws. Constant contraction is like a non-stop workout at the gym. The muscles under stress — the masseter in particular — become hypertonic. Its overuse can lead to changed that border on spastic; the muscle maintains a constantly contracted state. When bad enough this may result in lockjaw; a condition where the muscles are so tight that the jaw won’t open properly or at all.
TMJ dysfunction treatment: How can you recover? The first step is a professional assessment. If you suspect a TMJ dysfunction, an expert evaluation will determine if this is truly the cause of your symptoms and, depending on the findings, will shape the best path to recovery. The next step is to work out if you clench. It is possible to clamp down so tightly that you fracture teeth. So, yes, this is a sign. Look at your bite. Do your teeth appear worn down? This is another. Sensitivity to cold, teeth that feel or look like they’ve moved, waking up with jaw pain or headache (clenching is worse during sleep), and developing a square-looking jaw are other indicators. There is also an easy test you can perform now: While reading these words take note of your jaw. Are your teeth touching as you scroll through this article? The natural state of the jaw is to be relaxed. Your teeth should not touch at rest. If they do, or you have the other listed signs, it’s time to take action. TMJ dysfunction treatment: What approaches might offer relief? There are a range of available options. One or a blend of treatment approaches may be needed. Chiropractic Care A study published in the Journal of Chiropractic Medicine investigated patients who experienced TMJ dysfunction. The participants had symptoms including an inability to open the jaw correctly, TMJ clicking or stiffness, headache, and localized pain. Treatment with chiropractic adjustments and massage to a specific set of muscles called the supra-hyoid muscles gave significant relief. The authors noted, “All patients selected for this case series showed a reduction of temporomandibular dysfunction symptoms.”
Massage Because the muscles in TMJ dysfunction are so tight, reducing their tone may help. A case study published in the Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies shared the progress of a patient who experienced TMJ dysfunction for three years. After suffering from pain on chewing, jaw clicking, headaches, teeth grinding, and an inability to open the jaw properly, massage was found to deliver important benefits. These included “TMJ-related pain decreased and maximal jaw opening increased by almost a third. Jaw clicking decreased fourfold to once monthly.” Teeth grinding, though, remained unchanged. Rehabilitation TMJ Exercises When some muscles are too tight and others are too weak an imbalance results. This may trigger TMJ problems. Yet, rehabilitation exercises may restore stability and provide symptomatic relief. The jaw is complex so a professional assessment is important to encourage a positive outcome. Other Therapies At Flemington Chiropractic Center we offer chiropractic care, massage and rehabilitation. In addition, we find facial cupping and laser therapy work well for our patients with TMJ dysfunction. TMJ exercises: Our favorite at-home technique The right exercises are wonderful for balancing symmetry and function. Because TMJ dysfunction so often relates to super tight masseter muscles, I wanted to share my favorite way to calm this muscle down.
Place your fingers over the lower part of your jaw, pointing to your TMJ. Clench your jaw. You’ll feel the tight muscles pop up under your fingers. Vigorously rub the masseter for 20 seconds. Next, place both thumbs under your jaw. Open against your own resistance. Do not force this. You should notice opposition but it should feel comfortable. Hold for up to 30 seconds. Relax. This is one of the simple TMJ exercises that may help to rebalance the muscles in your jaw. The takeaway Jaw pain can be horrible and consistent. It can drain your quality of life. And when your stress levels are continuously high, you are at greater risk. Yet TMJ dysfunction treatment often delivers wonderful results. Reduced pain, less frequent clicking, fewer headaches, improve range of motion. At Flemington Chiropractic Center we’ve been helping our patients to alleviate TMJ pain and dysfunction for years. If you’re struggling, now it’s your turn. We look forward to meeting you soon!
Disclaimer: This Website offers advice designed for educational purposes only and is not intended to replace the advice, treatment, or diagnosis of a healthcare professional. We recommend consulting with a registered health professional before implementing any advice.