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Health Information | 03/14/2023

Jaw Pain? Something to Chew On.

By  Holly Hunt, PT
Woman with jaw pain maybe TMD
Have you ever woken up in the morning and tried to brush your teeth, but you couldn’t quite open your mouth wide enough to reach the back molars? Maybe you wince from the pain you feel in front of your ear when you yawn, or you hear a clicking sound when you open and close your mouth. If you’ve experienced any of these symptoms, there is a chance that you could be suffering from temporomandibular joint disorder (TMD). The temporomandibular joint (TMJ) connects our skull with our jawbone. This joint is incredibly important to overall health because it allows you to talk, chew, yawn, and swallow. The TMJ is one of the body's most actively used and least understood joints.

Symptoms of TMD

When the TMJ is not working properly, you can develop TMD. TMD can cause a variety of symptoms, including some that you might not associate with your jaw. Those symptoms include the following:
  • Pain in the jaw or TMJ joint
  • Clicking, grating, or popping sound when opening or closing your mouth
  • Difficulty opening your mouth wide
  • Jaw locking when opening or closing your mouth
  • Toothaches
  • Earaches
  • Headaches
  • Neck or shoulder pain
  • Dizziness
  • Tinnitus (ringing in the ear)
  • Dull pain in the face

Causes of TMD

Sometimes things can happen to the temporomandibular joint that affects our ability to open our mouths normally. Our jaw can lock shut and, sometimes, even lock open. It also can click when you open or close your mouth. These things fall into the category of TMJ dysfunction. Causes can include:
  • Muscle spasms in one of the chewing muscles
  • Arthritic changes in the joint itself
  • Dislocation of the disc found between the ball and socket of the joint
  • Alignment issues in the neck
  • Occlusal factors (teeth alignment issues)
  • Trauma to the joint
  • Emotional stress
  • Grinding or clenching your teeth
  • Chewing your fingernails

Getting Help

If you think you have problems with your TMJ, physical therapy can help relieve the symptoms and pain of TMD and help improve the function of the TMJ. A physical therapist will look at your range of motion, strength, and function of the TMJ and the neck. They will also ask many questions about posture, ergonomics, stress, clenching, and nail biting. They can perform various treatments and share exercises and preventive strategies, including:
  • Ultrasound to provide heat to the area and increase the mobility of the TMJ
  • Massage of the jaw and facial muscles as well as the neck and shoulders
  • Mobilization of the TMJ to improve joint motion
  • Exercises for your jaw
  • Exercises to improve your posture
You may also want to set up an appointment with your dentist. They will assess your bite and make sure a dental issue isn’t the cause of your TMJ pain. They will also help evaluate whether you grind your teeth; if so, they might fit you for a night guard to help protect your teeth.

Home Remedies for TMD

The symptoms of TMD may go away without treatment, but if you have a flare-up of symptoms, you can try the following suggestions:
  • Apply moist heat or cold packs to the side of your face.
  • Keep your teeth apart. The teeth should only be together when chewing.
  • Eat soft foods to rest your jaw, and avoid chewing gum or other chewy foods.
  • Try over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen or naproxen.
  • Be careful not to open your mouth too wide when yawning.
  • Practice good posture to reduce neck and shoulder pain.
  • Learn stress reduction techniques such as meditation or mindfulness.
So don’t delay! Take care of that TMJ!

About The Author

Holly Hunt, PT

Holly Hunt has been practicing physical therapy since 2000, primarily in the outpatient orthopedic setting. She is a board-certified orthopedic specialist. Holly has special training in TMJ dysfunction and vestibular dysfunction and also specializes in working with women for pre- and postpartum exercise intervention.

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