The temporomandibular joint (TMJ) enables jaw movements, such as opening and closing your mouth. Experiencing pain or discomfort in your jaw or near the ears could mean you have a TMJ disorder. Knowing the symptoms of the condition and identifying the causes are the first steps to finding relief and physical therapy can help.

Physical therapists can help individuals suffering from facial or jaw pain, a condition that is called temporomandibular disorder or TMD. This is a broader term that refers to a variety of problems relating to the jaw. TMD is sometimes incorrectly referred to as simply “TMJ”, which represents the name of the joint itself. Although incorrect, many people use these terms interchangeably.

Common Causes of TMJ Disorder

  • Muscular overuse– The most common cause of TMD. Overuse or jaw muscles that are in constant contraction including but not limited to clenching teeth, grinding teeth at night, or chewing gum.
  • Poor posture– misaligned spine may cause the lower jaw to rest incorrectly and create a bad bite.
  • Trauma– joint is damaged by a blow or other impact.
  • Dental procedure/oral Surgery– dental procedure with an open mouth for an extended period of time can cause pain.
  • Stress/Anxiety– stress can cause you to tighten facial and jaw muscles or clench the teeth
  • Behavior patterns- repetitive behavior including chewing gum, biting lip, biting inside of cheek, biting nails, chewing on a pen, biting water bottle, playing musical instrument (trumpet, oboe, violin), clenching, leaning on chin, using laptop computer in bed and poor ergonomics has a big influence on how jaw functions.

Symptoms of TMJ Disorder

Signs and symptoms of TMJ may include:

  • Jaw pain
  • Neck or shoulder pain
  • Pain when you chew, talk or yawn
  • Popping/clicking sound when you open mouth or chew
  • Grinding in the joint, also called crepitus
  • Locking of the joint, making it difficult to open and close your mouth
  • Pain in and around the ear or ringing in the ear
  • Deviation or deflection of the jaw when the jaw goes to one side.

TMJ Disorder Treatment with a Physical Therapist

Physical Therapy is a very common treatment for individuals with TMJ disorder.  Physical therapists take a comprehensive approach to assess the problem and develop a treatment plan to decrease pain, assist in pain-free jaw opening, restore mobility in the joint and educate the patient on ways to maintain healthy function. Treatment may consist of:

  • Manual Therapy– various techniques are used for muscles that are tight, stiff, or sensitive.
  • Therapeutic Exercises– allows patient to practice proper jaw alignment and postural awareness while exercising.
  • Postural Instruction/Ergonomics– influences how the jaw rests such as working at a computer and leaning forward can affect placement of jawbone.
  • Oral Posture– referred to as the “TMJ resting mouth position” which positions the tongue, lips, and jaw in a particular way to manage teeth clenching and ensure optimal health.
  • Application of heat– heat used on the jaw can relax muscles and decrease tension.
  • Temporomandibular Joint Mobilizations– Physical therapists places a gloved thumb or finger in the mouth along your teeth to mobilize the jaw.
  • Relaxation Exercises– tips to relax and heal painful jaw muscles.

Self-Care at Home for TMJ Disorder

Many people experiencing pain when they chew or yawn can find some relief by trying a few simple things at home:

  • Eat soft foods
  • Eat smaller bites
  • Heat on the face
  • Visual and audio cues: put stickers on computer or set frequent reminders on your cell phone to practice the “TMJ resting mouth position”
  • Avoid resting your chin on your hand
  • Practice relaxation techniques
  • Improve posture

If you suspect you may be dealing with TMJ disorder, don’t wait. Find out how Physical Therapy can play a role in your recovery! Contact us here to schedule an appointment today!