Massage and TMJ Dysfunction

February 15th, 2010

Jaws: Not just a subject for horror movies!

Man yawnsThe TMJ is the “temporomandibular joint”; that is, your jaw joint.  For such a tiny area of your body, it can cause a lot of issues!  Dysfunction in the TMJ can present itself in many ways:

-       Pain in the jaw, face, or ear

-       Clicking or popping in the jaw

-       Aching pain in the face or in and around the ear

-       “Locking” of the jaw, or difficulty in opening or closing your mouth

-       Headache in the sinuses, forehead, sides of head, or at the base of the skull

Anywhere from 10 to 28 percent of Americans suffer from TMJ dysfunction.  That’s 30 million to 84 million people!  Have you ever wondered why road rage is so prevalent?  Well, just try having a nice day when you’re suffering from constant TMJ pain!  In addition, women are more likely to suffer from TMJ pain than men.  I will make no further comments about women, driving, etc.

Let’s see, perhaps you have one or more of the symptoms described above. What can you do about it?  You have to eat, and likely speak throughout your day, so letting the area rest isn’t really an option.  Ice?  Heat?  Hm, that would look a bit funny.  (Not to mention making you speak rather oddly.)

If you suspect that you have TMJ problems, the first thing I would recommend is to go see your dentist!  He/ she may recommend a mouthguard, which you wear while sleeping.  It’s a bit like a retainer for braces, but more comfortable.  Mouthguards help relieve pressure on the teeth, bones, and jaw muscles, and reduce jaw clenching and grinding (aka bruxism).

Massage can also help TMJ dysfunction!  Whether muscle tension is actually the cause of the TMJ pain, or if the muscles have tightened due to pain; massaging out tight TMJ muscles can relieve pain in the jaw, face, and neck, and reduce the frequency and severity of any headaches.

Before your TMJ session, make sure that your therapist knows what he or she is doing.  Ask for credentials!  Look for a therapist with a neuromuscular therapy or medical massage certification.  Ask the therapist if they have or have had any clients with TMJ dysfunction, and if the client has had relief.  TMJ pain tends to be a chronic problem, so beware the therapist who says that the client was 100% better after one or two sessions.

A typical session for a client with TMJ would include a scalp, neck, and facial massage to help relax all of the jaw muscles, and associated head and neck muscles.  Most TMJ sessions include interoral work as well- using sterile gloves, the therapist works on the muscles inside your mouth.  This helps you open your mouth wider, with less pain and less jerkiness. Worried about a strong gag reflex?  No work inside your mouth ever touches your tongue, which is the usual trigger for gagging.  The interoral muscles are often very painful, so work here is usually light and lasts no longer than five to seven minutes.  Muscle energy techniques may also be used to restore range of motion, increase circulation, and reduce tenderness.

Self-massage is a wonderful idea, as well!  Using your fingertips, gently rub in circles on your masseter muscle.  This muscle runs from the point of your jaw, directly up to your cheekbone (right in front of your ear).  After that, place the palms of your hands flat against the sides of your head, above your ears and just behind your temples.  Rub in circles up and towards the back, but gently!  Too much pressure directly on your temples can cause headaches.  Also, remember to perform each stretch or self-massage technique for at least 15-20 seconds; that’s the minimum amount of time necessary for your nervous system to truly relax the muscle.

A third thing you can do is to teach yourself to relax your jaw throughout the day.  The best way to make sure that you’re not clenching, grinding, or tightening muscles unnecessarily is to make sure that your tongue is not touching the roof of your mouth.  Try it now, and notice how your jaw muscles relax right away!

Most people don’t consider massage for the sole purpose of treating TMJ pain.  It’s often an incidental thing, an add-on to any other issues.  This is a shame; while it is a tiny joint, the TMJ is rather important to your health.  First, TMJ pain that prevents healthy eating can severely impact your health physically.  Second, chronic pain of any kind affects your quality of life.  Ask yourself if a few massages that improve your enjoyment of life would be worth it!

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