Most people have heard of TMJ or TMD. What a lot of people don’t know is that a physical therapist can help people who are having symptoms of TMD or TMJ pain.
TMD, or tempormandibular dysfunction, is a relatively common problem that is most often associated with pain in the jaw, but has other symptoms as well, including jaw popping/locking, difficulty chewing, and even headaches, ear aches, and neck aches. There are two general categories of TMD.
Myalgia is characterized by having a history of pain located in the jaw, temple, and/or ear area AND that pain is changed by jaw movement or function. That means you tend to notice your pain more when you do things like talk or chew. Additionally, the pain can be reproduced by pressing on the muscles on the side of your jaw (A, masseter) and/or on the side of your head (B, temporalis). Opening your mouth may or may not be painful and your mouth range of motion may or may not be limited.
So, if this sounds like you, then there is a good chance you have myalgia. Now, what can you do about it? We will go through three strategies of self care that attempt to address myalgia: 1) activity modification, 2) soft diet, and 3) jaw exercise and awareness.
Most of the time people develop myalgia because they do activities that cause excessive or repetitive stress through the muscles of the jaw, so in order to eliminate your symptoms you need to figure out how to reduce or eliminate these activities. This seems simple, but it’s harder than it sounds. There are at least 21 of these activities or habits people often do that can be lessened or eliminated. A few of these activities include things like:
If you can identify these types of activities and take them out of your daily routine, there is a good chance your jaw pain may begin to decrease.
Going on a soft diet for a while can decrease the amount of work your jaw muscles have to do and over time can decrease the tension and pain in your jaw muscles. A soft diet can be more than just jello, applesauce, and smoothies. It can include things like:
In general, while on a soft diet you should avoid taking large bites, foods that require prolonged chewing even if they are soft, forceful biting, and any food that causes jaw pain. Foods to specifically avoid are hard or chewy foods like:
Jaw exercises and stress awareness:
A big reason people get myalgia is because of teeth grinding or clenching, which causes increased tension in the jaw muscles. Teeth clenching generally happens during periods of stress. Screaming kids, pressure at work, sitting in traffic, can all cause stress and result in clenching and contribute to myalgia. Teeth clenching can also happen during other times as well, such as when intensely focusing or during strenuous activity like working out or doing heavy yard work. It is important to become aware of your jaw, if you are clenching it, and what situations cause you to clench. There are exercises you can do during these times to make sure you aren’t clenching your teeth and to make sure you are maintaining a relaxed jaw posture. These exercises include:
Hopefully making some of these changes in behavior, diet, and jaw posture can reduce or eliminate your jaw pain. If they don’t, then don’t panic. There are lots of other ways to address myaglia, but you’ll need a physical therapist to help. There are several massage techniques for the muscles of the jaw that a physical therapist can perform to help decrease tension and pain. Dry needling (*link text to dry needling page/blog*) can be particularly helpful for trigger points in the jaw muscles. There is also a close relationship between the jaw and the neck, and performing manual therapy and stretching to the neck can help reduce muscle tension in both the neck and the jaw.
*NOTE: this post is about myalgia, which is a specific type of TMD. The points above are specific to myalgia and are not necessarily applicable to other types of TMD. A physical therapist can help if you have other types of TMD, too. If you are experiencing painful jaw popping, jaw locked closed or open, or significantly limited jaw opening, then you should make an appointment with a physical therapist specializing in TMJ such as Back in Action’s very own Sean Nixon, DPT, or a dentist or other oral health care provider who specializes in TMJ.