Treating TMJ with Physical Therapy

TMJ treated with physical therapy

If you've ever suffered from TMJ or TMD, you've probably experienced pain with eating, talking, and every movement of your jaw. The goods news? There is help!

Many people might not know that physical therapy can be very beneficial for people with jaw disorders. The most common jaw disorder is Temporomandibular Joint Dysfunction, also known as TMJ or TMJ Syndrome. In fact, there are more than 3 million cases of TMJ per year in the United States. Some symptoms of TMJ include pain, limited movement of the jaw, clicking of the jaw, and difficulty chewing. Those with a more severe case of TMJ may also experience dizziness, headaches, difficulty talking, neck pain, and ringing in their ears. If you are suffering from these TMJ symptoms, you are not alone and there are solutions to help you!

What is TMJ or TMD?

Temporomandibular Joint Dysfunction, more commonly known as TMJ, is a disorder of the jaw that causes pain in the temporomandibular joint. This joint connects your jaw to the temporal bones of your skull and allows your jaw to move up and down, side to side, and back and forth.

The lower jaw, known as the mandible, and the upper jaw, known as the maxilla, are connected together by the temporomandibular joint just in front of your ear. The jaw structure is held together by ligaments that provide support to the jaw in addition to several different muscles that help in the movement of the jaw.

Symptoms of TMJ

The following list includes the more common symptoms associated with TMJ or TMD, but is not limited to these. It is important to note that if you do have one of these symptoms, it does not always mean that you have TMJ or TMD. If any of the following symptoms are present, it is recommended that you consult with your physician, dentist, or TMJ specialist.

  • Pain or tenderness in your jaw.

  • Pain with chewing.

  • Popping, or clicking when you move your mouth.

  • Pain in the face or into your neck.

  • Inability, or difficulty to open or close your mouth.

  • Stiff muscles in your jaw.

  • Earaches.

  • Headaches.

Causes of TMJ

TMJ can be caused by a number of different things. Some causes of TMJ include:

Bad posture habits. Believe it, or not, bad posture while sitting can contribute to TMJ. Most of us spend the majority of the day sitting at a desk, with our heads pushed forward while looking at a computer screen. This position puts a strain on the muscles of the jaw and neck which can lead to problems with the jaw

Grinding your teeth (referred to as Bruxism). Many people grind their teeth at night when they sleep. This is most commonly due to stress. The continuous grinding can lead to inflammation, muscle spasms, and even a shift in your teeth.

Trauma. There are a couple different forms of trauma that can affect the jaw. They are broken down into micro and macrotrauma. Things such as grinding and clenching your teeth would be considered microtrauma, or internal trauma. In comparison, macrotrauma is caused by an external trauma, such as taking a hit to the jaw.

Arthritis in the jaw joint is not uncommon. As with the other joints of the body, the jaw is prone to different forms of arthritis including osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.

Lockjaw, or Trismus. This can be both a cause and a symptom of TMJ syndrome. Trismus occurs when the muscles of the jaw spasm and the jaw cannot open or close fully.

Risk Factors for TMJ

There are several factors that increase your likelihood of developing TMJ. Again, these are simply factors that may contribute to you developing TMJ, but does not mean that you absolutely will have TMJ.

Gender. Unfortunately, women are at a higher risk than men to develop TMJ. There are several reasons for this, including changing of hormones, higher rates of chronic stress, nutrient deficiencies, etc. Genetics. If stress and pain sensitivity run in your family, you are more susceptible to problems such as TMJ.

Physical therapy for TMJ syndrome focuses on relaxation, stretching, and releasing the tight muscles of the jaw and face. Some techniques may include:

  1. Jaw exercises. These exercises are used to help strengthen the jaw muscles as well as increase range of motion. The physical therapist won’t have you do any “heavy” jaw exercises, but will have you do “light” exercises that won’t add pressure to your TMJ. The goal is to strengthen the jaw muscles and allow the TMJ to relax.

  2. Heat & ice. Heating will help improve blood flow to the jaw, while icing helps to reduce inflammation and pain.

  3. Massage/Manual Therapy. Massaging the jaw and face helps to relieve overall tension. It also aids in relaxation. When the physical therapist performs manual therapy on a TMJ patient, they work to stretch the jaw. This not only helps to break up scar tissue that may be present, but helps to create flexibility in the muscles of the jaw.

  4. Ultrasound. Using an ultrasound helps to reduce swelling, reduce pain, and improve circulation.

  5. Posture education/re-education.

In addition to these modalities, our physical therapists can also help educate you on the prevention of TMJ. They will teach you ways to eliminate stress, relaxation techniques, foods to eat and avoid. If physical therapy isn’t proving to be beneficial, they may refer you to a dentist or TMJ specialist.

If you or anyone you know is suffering from TMJ, contact us to set up an appointment. Our team of physical therapists have experience in helping TMJ patients reduce and manage their symptoms. You can reach our Rancho Santa Margarita office at (949) 713-6445 or our Irvine office at (949) 262-9142.


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