TMJ pain is one of the most common reasons patients begin working with me or one of my associate therapists. The TMJ (temporomandibular joint) or jaw joint is one of the more complex joints in the human body. It’s incredibly durable and designed to last a lifetime, but sadly, TMJ disorders seem to be increasing in our modern times.
The TMJ is basically a specialized, three-dimensional hinge that allows us humans to move our jaws the way we can. A large number of our orofacial muscles are connected to the jaws to facilitate this intricate movement.
When you picture the way our jaws move, you can get an idea of the complexity of this part of our body. The jaw needs to move up and down, forward and back, and side to side to allow us to speak, chew, and yawn. It also has to be versatile enough to make the subtle movements required for speech as well as being able to open very wide and to generate enough force to deal with tough, hard to chew foods.
What Are Temporomandibular Disorders?
Medical science refers to problems with the TMJ as temporomandibular disorders or TMD. This term is used to refer to any pain, discomfort, dysfunction, or tension related to the jaw. You may also hear it described as TMJ syndrome.
Many of my patients find me because they’re experiencing generalized TMJ-related pain and dysfunctions. That’s their immediate focus but as I always point out, their pain is always the result of an underlying temporomandibular disorder of some sort.
Unfortunately, what’s actually causing these temporomandibular disorders can be hard to pinpoint because a number of factors may be contributing. These factors may be a combination of:
- Epigenetic changes
- Age-related degeneration
- Autoimmune conditions such as arthritis and rheumatoid arthritis
- Nutritional and dietary issues
- Chronic stress
- Postural and structural issues
- Teeth clenching and grinding
- Improper chewing or swallowing patterns
- Incorrect tongue resting posture and mouth breathing
- Persistently sleeping on one side
Anything that affects the functionality or structure of the temporomandibular joint can lead to TMJ dysfunction, pain, tension, and a wide range of other symptoms.
What Are The Symptoms Of Temporomandibular Disorders?
The symptoms of temporomandibular disorders can include:
- Jaw and facial pain, tension, and stiffness
- Pain and tension that radiates into the neck, shoulders, and upper body
- Hearing difficulties
- Tinnitus (ringing in the ears)
- Clicking or grating sounds when opening the mouth, yawning or chewing
- Clenching and grinding of teeth
- Difficulty opening the mouth wide or yawning
- Difficulty chewing
- Locking open of the jaw
When dealing specifically with TMJ-related pain, it can range from mild to extremely severe depending on the individual situation. The pain symptoms can come on quite suddenly or they can slowly get worse over time. The pain isn’t necessarily in the TMJ itself. It’s often pain in the facial muscles and muscles of mastication, but it’s related to dysfunctions of the TMJ.
It’s possible to get temporary relief from TMJ pain and tension using simple remedies such as gentle massage, heat and ice, and over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs). But unless the root cause is addressed, the pain may become chronic and may worsen over time.
TMJ Pain And Myofunctional Therapy
Depending on the origin of the pain, I believe that myofunctional therapy should be an integral part of many TMD treatment plans. If TMJ pain and other symptoms of TMD are caused by oral myofunctional disorders, then the best way to address the pain is to target those disorders.
Myofunctional therapy was created to treat oral myofunctional dysfunctions. It strengthens and retrains the oral and facial muscles. It can also correct dysfunctional swallowing and chewing patterns, restore nasal breathing, and get the tongue to rest in the correct place (on the top of the mouth, filling the palate from front to back).
This can go a long way to help resolve TMJ pain. As this study from Brazil shows, myofunctional therapy can make a major difference to TMD, helping to restore the temporomandibular joint to correct functionality and reduce pain. The study indicated improvements in pain levels, increased mandibular range of motion, and a reduction in related signs and symptoms.
The Team Approach To TMJ Pain
Because the contributing factors involved can be so complex, managing and treating TMJ pain and other TMD symptoms often requires a skilled multi-disciplinary team. A good myofunctional therapist can also help to find the best doctors and specialists to work with for temporomandibular disorders. I tell my patients that in addition to my job as a myofunctional therapist, I’m also a little bit like a “traffic director”, steering my patients to the specific healthcare professionals they need on their treatment team.
Like most myofunctional therapists, I’ve built up a substantial referral network over the years. This allows me to recommend the right doctor, dentist, orthodontist, or bodyworker for my patients with TMJ-related issues depending on their unique requirements.
Myofunctional therapy fits in really well with a number of other TMD treatment modalities. For example, this study looked at combining oral myofunctional exercises with low-level laser therapy for the rehabilitation of patients with chronic temporomandibular disorders. The study concluded that low-level laser therapy combined with the oral myofunctional exercises was more effective in promoting TMD rehabilitation than the laser therapy alone was.
TMJ pain and other temporomandibular disorders need to be seen in a holistic light, just like many health problems. When the root causes are investigated and addressed using a multi-disciplinary approach, then real and substantial improvements over the long-term can be achieved.