by Danielle Clark-Fox
Ever heard someone say “I have TMJ” and they describe the same jaw pain and dysfunction you have?
TMJ stands for Temporomandibular Joint. It’s a very unique joint for the body in that the left and right are totally dependent on each other. The left can’t move without the right and vice versa, go ahead and try it! It’s like trying to eat without bending your elbow! It’s also the most frequently used joint in the body, not giving it much time to rest after an injury or stressing event.
There are many reasons why people experience jaw pain while chewing, locking of the jaw, or deviation to the left or right as they open and close their mouth. The most common reasons are stress, trauma due to accident or dental work and grinding of teeth at night (which may also be due to stress for some). Surgery anywhere in the head/neck/face area can also cause TMJ dysfunction if the muscles have been affected. These muscles are called the masseter and temporalis muscles. You can feel them pop out when you clench your jaw or puff out your cheeks. Chewing on pen caps, excessive gum chewing and chewing/eating ice cubes and consistently chewing on only one side of your jaw also contribute to dysfunction.
These issues can cause a slipping of the disc, tightening of the ligament and/or displacement of the joint. Mechanical issues such as these cause the symptoms you feel as well as headaches for a lot of patients. As the left and right are so dependent on each other you may feel pain and clicking on one side only or one side more than the other while the mechanical issues are generally left and right, and should be treated together in the same session.
There are several effective methods of treatment for these symptoms. A dentist can fit for a mouth guard to decrease grinding of teeth at night. Physical therapy can assist in intra-oral and extra-oral manual techniques for the disc and ligament as well as the joint and surrounding musculature. Acupuncture has also been reported very effective for several of our patients. Most sessions with my patients last 30-40 minutes and the dysfunction generally resolved in 4-8 sessions.