The joint that connects your lower jaw to your skull is called the temporomandibular joint – that’s a mouthful, right? Commonly abbreviated as TMJ, these three letters have come to encompass all of the many jaw-joint disorders.
TMJ disorders can be detected by noticing a collection of symptoms ranging from pain or tightness in the jaw to head-splitting migraines and even tinnitus (ringing in the ears). Luckily, there is a lot that physiotherapy can do to help ease TMJ symptoms, and preventive lifestyle changes often help as well.
What causes a TMJ Disorder?
TMJ disorders are usually associated with stress and unconscious bad habits, like jaw clenching and teeth grinding. It can be difficult to diagnose TMJ, but as with any medical condition that’s causing you pain, it’s best to schedule a thorough review with your healthcare practitioner or physiotherapist for a proper diagnosis and treatment options.
TMJ-related pain may be caused by:
- Jaw clenching or teeth grinding
- Joint erosion
- Uneven jaw from birth
TMJ Affects More Women Than Men
It may surprise you to hear that women in their childbearing years account for 90% of the 10 million North Americans suffering from TMJ. That’s a highly disproportionate number of women!
In general, women are five times more likely to develop TMJ disorders than men. There are many theories about why this may be, but researchers think that both hormonal and behavioural differences play factors.
The Lifestyle Factors Relating to TMJ:
- Poor posture that strains the face and neck
- Long-term stress
- Poor diet
- Lack of sleep
- Orthodontic braces
What are the Symptoms of TMJ?
Patients diagnosed with TMJ typically experience pain on one side of the face, although in some cases, the pain can occur on both sides. The pain level can range from relatively mild all the way to debilitating and is often, although not always, accompanied by one or more other symptoms.
Typical TMG Symptoms
- Pain in the jaw, face, neck or ear
- Tinnitus (ringing in the ear)
- Pain while chewing
- Popping or clicking sound from the jaw joint
- Locking of the jaw
The Difficulty in Diagnosing TMJ
It can be complex to diagnose a case of TMJ because the symptoms vary greatly and there can be more than one cause. Your physiotherapist, doctor or dentist will listen for clicking or popping sounds as you open and close your jaw, observe the range of motion, and press on areas of your face to identify the source of pain. If your health practitioner suspects your condition is a TMJ disorder, they may conduct a procedure to find out what’s going on under the surface.
Common Procedures Used to Diagnose TMJ
- CT scan of the jaw bones and joint tissue
- X-rays of the jaw and teeth
- MRI of the jaw to see if there are issues with the joint’s surrounding soft tissue or disk
A Holistic Approach to Easing TMJ
Masking TMJ pain with pain killers is a shortcut to relief that can have long-term adverse side effects on a patient’s health and emotional well-being. Painkillers bypass the root cause of TMJ and don’t solve anything other than temporary pain, and the regular use of pain killers is detrimental to liver health.
Rather than applying a chemical band-aid, try these self-care practices:
- Reduce stress through proven techniques, such as daily meditation and yoga
- Don’t overwork your jaw with chewing gum and tough foods like beef jerky
- Utilize exercises to strengthen your jaw and widen its range of motion
- Apply an ice pack to reduce jaw swelling and face pain
- Eat soft foods when symptoms are flaring up
Drug-Free Therapies for Treating a TMJ Disorder
Mouthguards or Oral Splints
Wearing a mouthguard while you sleep is a commonly used therapy which can help prevent the damage and pressure from stress-related grinding of teeth in your sleep.
Physiotherapy for TMJ may include applying ice packs or moist heating pads to pain centres around the face. The use of ultrasound and facial exercises designed to stretch and strengthen jaw muscles can also be of help depending on the symptoms.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy
CBT is a form of psychological treatment which can be effective in reducing the stress-related behaviours that cause TMJ. Not to mention it comes with a host of beneficial side-effects, such as helping to manage the stress of everyday life.
Meditation and Yoga are both very good ways to reduce stress, which in turn helps to reduce the tendency to clench the jaw and grind the teeth.
If you suffer from a TMJ disorder, it’s important to learn about the actions and habits that may make your pain worse so you can avoid them.
Stress Reduction Helps Prevent TMJ Disorders
Above and beyond any other treatment, the best way to prevent TMJ from developing is by reducing stress levels. By incorporating healthy lifestyle changes that aim to reduce stress and improve your resilience to stress, the behaviours that cause TMJ are often reduced.
If you grind your teeth in your sleep, a typical symptom of stress, you may also benefit from wearing a mouthguard at night.
Caffeine and TMG
Limiting your caffeine and alcohol intake can relieve jaw clenching and teeth grinding in your sleep, as both are stimulants that tend to exacerbate the physical component of stress.
Non-Behavioural Causes of TMJ
TMJ may be caused by some conditions that are not linked to behaviour, such as arthritis or a structurally uneven jaw. If you suspect your TMJ symptoms may be caused by one of these issues, a proper assessment by your physiotherapist is important, as there will be treatment considerations that are unique to you.
If you think you might be suffering from TMJ, the staff at LifeForce Physiotherapy can help you uncover the underlying issues, and offer treatment options that are right for you. Give us a call! 416-207-9395