If you place your hands on your face just below the cheek bones and start opening and closing your mouth, then you can feel your temporomandibular joint (TMJ) flexing and moving. The TMJ connects both the lower and upper jaw, and it also comprises the muscles involved for its movement. The TMJ is prone to getting injured due to how often we use it, but fortunately a chiropractor can help with TMJ pain if you are experiencing it.
A staggering amount of Americans have experienced pain related to their TMJ or they may even be suffering from a temporomandibular disorder (TMD). It is estimated that approximately 75% of the U.S. population will, at some point in their lives, suffer from at least one or more symptoms of TMD.
Some at-home treatments for a TMD are applying hot or cold compresses to the area, eating softer foods, taking muscle relaxants, or sleeping with a night guard to prevent exacerbating the injury. Should these methods prove ineffective, patients may resort to oral surgery to change their bite or modify their jaw. A less invasive and cost-effective option is to undergo chiropractic treatment instead, which has been proven to be effective for reducing TMJ symptoms.
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What is the Temporomandibular Joint (TMJ)?
Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) is the term used to describe the joints and muscles which connect the upper and lower jaws. It is also a common term used to describe the pain or disorder affecting these same joints, which is referred to as TMJ pain.
By allowing the jaw to open and close, as well as shift side-to-side, the TMJ is responsible for a lot of movement for the lower half of our face. Without it, we couldn’t chew food, speak, or even yawn!
When speaking about TMJ pain, do not refer to it simply as “TMJ”, as that only means the joint. This is a common mistake that people make. It is important to follow up with the word “pain” after it, or refer to a condition as temporomandibular disorder (TMD).
How do you know if you are experiencing TMJ pain or have a TMD? Any issues with the complicated TMJ as well as nearby muscles will result in various symptoms. Experiencing these symptoms does not necessarily mean one has a disorder. Common symptoms are:
- Complications with opening and closing the mouth, talking, chewing, biting
- Popping, clicking, or any unusual noises produced when moving the mouth
- Dull aches near the ear and cheekbones that may travel behind the head and down the neck
- Jaw pain
- Locked jaw
- Difficulty with opening the jaw as wide as normal
If you experience any of these symptoms, you may try some at-home treatments first. You may also consider seeing a chiropractor or dentist if the symptoms are getting worse.
Alleviating TMJ Pain with Chiropractic
There are some basic steps you can do to reduce TMJ pain, such as avoiding taxing jaw movements, eating softer foods, practicing gentle stretching to improve flexibility, and learning stress-reducing techniques to calm you down. Soft tissue massage and chiropractic manipulation of the spine, in addition to jaw exercises, have been proven to alleviate symptoms that cause pain.
Chiropractic alone may be enough to relieve TMJ pain, but can be used alongside other treatment options. Medications that can be used to treat TMJ pain include analgesics (pain killers), muscle relaxants, and anti-inflammatories such as ibuprofen or naproxen. In the case of severe pain, local corticosteroid injections may be used.
Applying hot or cold compresses to the TMJ can also reduce inflammation and provide relief. If the TMJ pain is caused by bruxism (teeth grinding), then wearing a night guard while sleeping or even during the day for daytime teeth grinding can prevent biting. Bite plates can also be effective for fixing misalignment. Effective behavioral approaches for managing or reducing TMJ pain include jaw-stretching exercises, altering chewing habits, and stress reduction techniques.
Another technique practiced by some healthcare providers, such as chiropractors, is the intraoral myofascial release. This treatment releases the tight muscles surrounding the joint by massaging them from the inside of an individual’s cheeks. After all, the TMJ is a joint, and chiropractors are skilled at handling muscle and joint pain to determine an optimal way to alleviate your jaw pain.
Regardless of which treatment option you decide to go with, know that there are many options available to you. Whether it is self-care, adjusting your lifestyle, or enlisting the help of a dentist or chiropractor, the options available run the gamut of cost and invasiveness, but all have been proven to be beneficial.
Causes of TMJ Pain
The reason why your jaw movement is smooth is thanks to a disc of cartilage that separates the bones of the joint. When this disc is displaced, or the muscles surrounding it gets strained, or a joint disease such as arthritis affects it, then the smoothness of your jaw movement may be affected.
The types of pain that this joint may experience can be put into three categories.
- Internal derangement of the TMJ or a displaced or dislocated disc.
- Degenerative joint disease, such as osteoarthritis in the jaw joint.
- Myofascial pain, or pain that affects the muscles which move the jaw as well as the connecting shoulder and neck muscles. This type of pain is the most prevalent.
The most common things that can increase one’s chances of developing a TMD are factors relating to stress, bruxism (teeth grinding or clenching), or a direct injury to the jaw.
Why Use Chiropractic for TMJ?
Even though there are other effective options to treat conditions affecting the TMJ, chiropractic has been demonstrated in scientific studies to be helpful in relieving TMJ pain. Specifically, in a 2015 study, 14 participants were treated with chiropractic care using the Activator Method. This method involves using a tool that administers low-impact, high-frequency adjustments.
After several treatments, all participants increased the distance that they could open their mouth without pain, and overall reduced pain measurements. While it is true that this study involves the use of a specialized treatment, rather than traditional chiropractic treatment, it shows that chiropractic manipulation of the muscles and joints can have an effect on treating TMD.
How Does Chiropractic Treat TMD?
The focus of chiropractic treatment of TMJ pain is on alleviating tension in the muscles surrounding the joint. It is a holistic approach using trigger point therapy as well as massage, working on not only the inside and outside of the mouth, but also the neck, shoulder and back muscles as well.
What are trigger points? They are sensitive areas of muscle fibers that feel like knots and may elicit a twitching response or cause pain when pressure is exerted on them. Chiropractors aim to find these points and reduce the pain they cause.
Adjustments are typically done by hand. Using a method that stretches the inside of the joint, a chiropractor can release tight fibrous attachments created by the body as a result of past trauma. Home exercises may be prescribed to patients so that they can loosen tight muscles and strengthen their TMJ between appointments.
In some circumstances, back problems or improper posture can lead to a TMD. One approach to treating TMJ pain resulting from misalignment in the upper back and neck area is to administer chiropractic adjustments on the spinal joint in affected areas.
Furthermore, if there are tight muscles or knots in the back near the spine, a chiropractor reduce their tension through massage. The purpose of this is to lower the stress on the jaw so that further treatment on the TMJ will produce more results.
When chiropractic adjustments are used, symptoms such as jaw locking, headaches, ear and neck pain, and reduced motion of the jaw joint can be improved.