“I’ve got TMJ!” Is a phrase we here very often as chiropractors, but what does it mean? The Tempero Mandibular Joint (TMJ) is the just the joint between the temporal bone (a bit on the side of your skull) and the mandible (your jaw bone) join together, it moves up and down like a knee or an elbow but can also jut out or back and deviate side to side. So when people tell us they have TMJ as a syndrome or condition we smirk a little inside and put a superior smile on our faces because everyone has a TMJ. Most often we are gracious about it and don’t point at people and laugh in their faces. There is another, better term for problems with the TMJ, it’s TMD, this means Dysfunction of the TMJ. TMD can be very debilitating, it can lead to problems chewing and eating, to constant states of pain where the brain is sensitised to feel more pain from normal stimulus and to pretty awful headaches too.
It is thought that TMD can increase the frequency of tension headache because the nerves that come from your brain to your jaw come the exact same spot in your brainstem as the nerves that go to your meninges (the covering of your brain) and to the skin on your scalp. They all lead back to Trigeminal nucleus of your brainstem and scientists think that if this nucleus is constantly receiving stimulus from sources like your TMJ it can lead to all over headache pain and increased frequency of headache and migraine.
Signs that may lead us to believe a patient is experiencing TMD can include clicking and popping when speaking or chewing, inability to open or close the jaw completely as well as muscle bunching or redness around the jaw. Some TMD problems may even present with a jaw bone visibly shifted to one side in a sort locked in state that wont go away.
The most common causes of TMD seem to be jaw clenching and grinding, this can often happen in stressful situations or it can even happen at night when a person is asleep. A recent or even old injury to the jaw or even the neck could weaken it and leave it vulnerable to dysfunction. But happily there are a range of treatment options available to deal with such injuries.
Your GP can prescribe pain killers and muscle relaxants if they think it appropriate. These can help to lessen the pain and loosen the associated muscles which will loosen things off.
Home tips might include gently using a heat pack over the affected joint with some layers of towel to protect your face from burns.
A dentist can prescribe a splint for night use to lengthen tight jaw muscles while also protecting your teeth from wear.
A chiropractor can help with TMJ mechanical problems by gently releasing the muscles around the jaw and mobilising the restricted joint. This helps to increase range of motion again and decrease pain, often to no pain at all!
Home exercises for the jaw have to be quite specific and should only practised with supervision from a health professional until they are performed correctly. There even evidence to suggest weakness in the neck muscles may predispose people to jaw injury over time so it can be useful to increase the strength of the deep muscles of the neck to rehabilitate TMD patients.
If you have recurrent jaw pain or think you benefit from an assessment call us or your regular health practitioner to get checked asap.