Why does my jaw hurt?
Jaw pain is often associated with dysfunction at the temporomandibular joint (TMJ). The TMJ is located just in front of your ear, and it allows your mouth to open and close. Similar to other joints in your body, the TMJ is comprised of cartilage, a joint capsule, bone; and it’s surrounded by muscles, ligaments, and other soft tissue structures. All of these components must work harmoniously in order to effectively perform repetitive daily tasks such as chewing, talking, smiling, and yawning. Dysfunction or irritation of any one of the structures at or around the TMJ may lead to jaw pain. Jaw pain that is associated with dysfunction at the TMJ is categorized at temporomandibular dysfunction (TMD).
What are the common causes of jaw pain?
The cause of jaw pain is often related to conscious and unconscious habits. Specific habits that may serve to aggravate jaw pain include clenching, excessive gum chewing, teeth grinding, and lip or fingernail biting. These activities can lead to over activation of the jaw muscles, which promotes irritability of these tissues. Emotional stress, anxiety, or increased caffeine intake can act to promote some of these detrimental habits such as clenching and teeth grinding.
Food intake can also play a role in jaw pain. Harder and dryer foods typically require increased chewing time before being swallowed. Increased chewing time and increased chewing cycles can cause your jaw muscles to become fatigued and over-worked, which can manifest as pain at these muscles.
Dysfunction at a specific muscle or muscle group near the jaw can contribute to jaw pain through the development of symptomatic trigger points. A trigger point is a taught area of tissue or muscle that is irritable and tender. If you have ever had a massage, trigger points are usually referred to as “knots”. These tender points are often the cause of jaw pain in patients with over-active or immobile musculature.
In addition to muscular deficits, the TMJ is also prone to joint dysfunction. Overtime, the TMJ can wear down and become weak and unstable. As the joint undergoes these changes, some structures around the jaw can become too stiff while other components become too mobile. This imbalance can lead to jaw pain while performing certain motions such as opening and closing your mouth.
Muscles around your neck and shoulders play an integral role in the movement and stability of your jaw. This relationship may not make a whole lot of sense at first, but just think, your jaw is connected to your head, your head is supported by your neck, and your neck sits on your shoulders. All of these components are connected, and they must work coherently in order for each part to function properly. Weakness or deficiency at one area can lead to dysfunction somewhere else. Specifically, weakness at the muscles around your neck are most commonly associated with jaw pain, or TMD. This can be the result of poor postural habits such as slouching down in your chair or letting your head rest too far forward.
How can physical therapy help?
With so many different possible causes of jaw pain it may be difficult to distinguish which factors have the most impact on your specific jaw pain. That’s where physical therapy comes in. One of our physical therapists, specially trained in the treatment of TMJ disorders will not only help you find the exact cause of your pain, but they will also determine the best way to treat your symptoms in order to get you back to living pain-free. Physical therapy is often the preferred conservative approach to treating jaw pain, as physical therapists can offer a variety of treatment options to best fit each individual patient. Below is a list of some of the most effective treatment methods when it comes to addressing TMD.
Exercise: A carefully selected exercise program focused on specific muscle groups is one of the key factors when it comes to getting your jaw moving properly. Exercises targeted towards muscles around your jaw that control chewing, and postural muscles at your neck are most effective at reducing jaw pain. Shoulder strengthening can also be addressed to facilitate improved posture and promote long term stability at the neck and TMJ.
Joint mobilizations: The TMJ, like many joints in your body, sometimes needs hands- on help in order to move properly. A trained physical therapist can help facilitate normal movement at your TMJ through joint mobilizations. You can think of these mobilizations as small stretches at your jaw that are guided by the therapist. Think about how good it feels to stretch your legs or your back after laying down or sitting for too long. The same idea can be applied at the jaw, mobilizing the TMJ often reduces symptoms associated with TMD.
Soft tissue mobilization: Soft tissues include all of the muscles, tendons, and connective tissue that surround your jaw. Soft tissue mobilization is an approach that incorporates massage, trigger point release, and tool-assisted mobilization. This form of treatment can have a number of effects, including decreasing tissue restrictions, promoting proper healing at painful sites, and improving mobility of jaw musculature.
Postural corrections: Whether you spend most of your day sitting, standing, or walking, a physical therapist can help improve your posture in any position. Physical therapists can offer easy tips and tricks to facilitate proper posture throughout the day, which is going to put the least amount of stress at your TMJ and neck.
Stress management: High levels of stress are often associated with pain, especially when it comes to TMD. Increased stress may contribute to clenching and teeth grinding. A physical therapist can provide basic strategies to help manage your stress levels. These strategies may include mindfulness meditation, breathing techniques, and task modifications. If interested, a physical therapist will help you implement these techniques into your daily life.
What can I do?
If you have a history of jaw pain, or if you think you currently have symptoms associated with TMD, see a physical therapist! A physical therapist will perform a thorough examination and help you find the best path to get you back to chewing, talking, smiling, and laughing symptom-free. In the meantime, here are some quick tips that you can try on your own to help manage your symptoms:
Exercise your jaw: You can start with one simple exercise. Place your tongue on the roof of your mouth and slowly open your mouth without moving your tongue. “Motion is lotion” is the idea with this exercise. Small, controlled movements help decrease irritability at the TMJ. This exercise can be performed for several repetitions at a time throughout the day.
Change your sleeping habits: Try to avoid sleeping on your side or your stomach. These sleeping positions put added pressure on your TMJ and force your jaw to rest in an unnatural position. Sleeping on your back with a pillow supporting your neck and head puts your jaw in the most ideal sleeping position.
Stick to softer and smaller foods: Cutting your food into smaller bites, or cooking your vegetables so that they are softer are a couple ideas that you can try in order to decrease the stress on your jaw during meals. Try to limit raw vegetable, nuts, and large bites from hamburgers. Too many hard foods or big bites can aggravate your symptoms.
For an individualized treatment plan, consult with one of our physical therapists by calling us at (872) 704-0628 or by scheduling an appointment online. Remember to also check out our Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter pages for more articles and helpful information!
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Shimada A, Ishigaki S, Matsuka Y, Komiyama O, Torisu T, Oono Y, Sato H, Naganawa T, Mine A, Yamazaki Y, Okura K, Sakuma Y, Sasaki K. Effects of exercise therapy on painful temporomandibular disorders. J Oral Rehabil. 2019.