Most people understand that physical therapists treat joints and muscles in the body like knees and shoulders, but there are a few unique areas of the body that physical therapists can treat as well. One of these areas is the jaw or temporomandibular joint or TMJ. This is the joint that connects your lower jaw to the skull and allows you to open and close your mouth. Proper function of the TMJ is needed to speak, breathe at times, yawn, make facial expressions, and most importantly (at least for us in Louisiana) eat amazing food. The TMJ is really just like any joint in the body and can be susceptible to trauma or other joint problems that lead to pain and dysfunction. When there is an issue with the TMJ it is diagnosed as temporomandibular joint dysfunction or TMJD. This is normally diagnosed by an ENT (ear, nose, throat doctor) or a dentist. They will be able to rule out other jaw issues like a toothache or facial neuralgia and be able to confirm that it is an issue with the joint itself.
Like any joint in the body, TMJD can be caused by an injury to the joint or by excessive wear and tear. Somethings that may contribute to the cause of TMJD is grinding of the teeth, habitual clenching, prolonged stress, poor sleep, poor diet, and increased strain and tension of the neck and face muscles. The symptoms of TMJD include pain of the jaw, face, and neck, painful popping and clicking of the jaw, stiffness of the jaw and neck, locking or limited movement of the jaw, and a shift in the jaw.
Treatment of TMJD can include taking medications to alleviate symptoms, changing the type of foods you eat, or using a bite guard if grinding your teeth is the problem. In rare cases corrective dental treatment, removing fluid from the joint, or surgery is used. In most cases, TMJD can be resolved with the help of a physical therapist and a good therapy home program. Again, just like any joint in the body, the TMJ is controlled by muscles and if you can improve the function of the muscles around the joint it can improve the joint itself. Better muscle function can help the jaw have better control and support when opening and closing and ensure the joint is working like it should. In addition, a physical therapist can also help reduce any issues going on with your neck tightness, which in a lot of cases is causing TMJD. I have had good results with several patients struggling with TMJD using dry needling to improve muscle function along with exercises to retrain the jaw muscles to better support the joint. If you are having jaw pain with popping and clicking please seek out a physical therapist that is comfortable with treating TMJD. It is a tragedy to have pain when trying to eat.
Mason Porter, PT, DPT