Do you frequently wake up with headaches? Do you have sensitive or sore teeth? Struggle with neck pain or sensitivity in your face? Can you hear a clicking or popping sound when you eat? If so, you may have something called a temporomandibular joint disorder (TMD). I know, it’s a big word used to describe pain and problems with the joint that connects your lower jaw to your skull.
Also called your TMJ, the temporomandibular joint is located just in front of each ear. You can feel a small indentation in the joint when you open your mouth. Your TMJ is a workhorse, opening and closing every time you eat, talk, laugh or yawn. When the joint becomes inflamed, misaligned or injured, you can experience a variety of symptoms. Some common complaints associated with a temporomandibular joint disorder include swelling and tenderness in your face, waking up with a headache, pain in the joint itself, tooth grinding, tender or sore teeth, a stiff neck, shoulder pain and episodes in which your mouth becomes locked open. Popping or clicking sounds when you eat or the feeling that your teeth don’t fit together well are also signs of TMJ problems.
Causes of TMJ pain can arise from problems with the muscles associated with the joint, as well as problems with the joint itself. Some common causes of TMJ pain include:
- Clenching your teeth. This is often an unconscious reaction to stress—so much so that many people who clench have no idea they do so until they begin to have TMJ symptoms. Clenching often occurs at nighttime, in which the tiny but very strong masseter muscle at the lower corner of your jaw becomes tight, causing headaches, neck and jaw pain, and can ultimately wear down and fracture teeth.
- Problems within the joint. Your temporomandibular joint is a ball and socket joint, and the disc within the joint can become misaligned or slip out of place, causing joint pain and a popping sound when you open and close your mouth.
- An injury that affects your jaw. This includes a direct hit to your face, a head or neck injury and whiplash.
- Arthritis in the joint, which can cause pain, inflammation and some malformation of the bones within the joint.
- Misalignment of your teeth. How your upper and lower teeth fit together is called your bite. When your bite is out of alignment, it can throw off how the parts of your temporomandibular joint moves against each other, causing pain and inflammation.
When it comes to finding relief from the pain and symptoms of temporomandibular joint disorders, there are a number of do’s and don’ts that can be helpful:
DO get some help. A good first place to begin is with your dentist, who can assess your bite and other problems with your teeth that might be causing your TMJ problems. Your dentist can also make a night guard, which is a small appliance that protects your teeth and helps prevent nighttime tooth clenching. However, not all TMJ problems can be solved through dentistry, and a good next step is acupuncture. Acupuncture can help with TMD in the following ways:
- It can relieve pain and reduce inflammation in the joint
- Acupuncture promotes stress relief, which helps reduce tooth clenching.
- It can loosen the masseter muscles, which are involved in tooth clenching. It can also release tension in the peripheral muscles on the side of your head and into your neck and shoulders that also become tight from clenching.
- Acupuncture increases circulation throughout the joint and supporting muscles, which promotes healing.
- Acupuncture is well-known for its ability to relieve headaches of any kind.
In addition to acupuncture, cold laser therapy—the kind that’s offered at BodaHealth—helps to gently penetrate deep into tissue layers to promote healthy changes at the cellular level. This kind of low level laser therapy has been found to relieve pain, reduce inflammation and help restore range of motion in the joint and surrounding muscles.
DO get a massage if your TMJ pain is from tooth grinding. At BodaHealth, our registered massage therapists can help relieve tension and loosen the muscles associated with clenching, as well as relieve tightness in your neck and shoulders. Massage can also be an effective (and really pleasant!) way to relieve headaches caused by TMJ problems, and it helps to reduce stress.
DO try a little heat. Warming both the temporomandibular joint and the surrounding muscles opens up the blood vessels to promote better circulation, which helps move out inflammation from the area. It also helps loosen up the joint and surrounding muscles.
DON’T chew gum. The constant opening and closing of your mouth as you chew only aggravates the inflammation in the joint.
DON’T eat a lot of hard, chewy or dense foods. Also, foods such as large sandwiches, apples and bagels that cause you to open your mouth very wide can also aggravate your TMJ, and in extreme cases can cause the joint to lock.
DO whatever it takes to reduce your stress. In addition to acupuncture and massage, strategies to reduce your stress can help to reduce tooth clenching. Meditation, yoga, visualization and relaxation techniques specifically to help loosen your jaw muscles all can be helpful.
While it may seem odd that such a small joint can cause such a great deal of pain, temporomandibular disorders are very real and can negatively affect your quality of life. The good news is that TMJ pain is usually very treatable. If you’d like to know more about how we can help relieve your TMD symptoms at BodaHealth, please give us a call.