By Sydney CBD Osteopath Dr Abbey Davidson
The temporomandibular joints (TMJ) are two joints which attach your jaw bone (mandible) to the skull. These joints allow movement, allowing us to open and close our mouths, resulting in the ability to talk and eat. Injury to the jaw or teeth, wear and tear with ageing, genetics and jaw clenching or grinding can be responsible for the development of TMJ issues.
Issues with the TMJ are often associated with symptoms such as jaw and face pain, upper neck pain, headaches, ear pain, clicking/popping or locking of the jaw. Depending on the cause of TMJ complaints, either one or both joints can be symptomatic.
Stress is often a contributing factor to TMJ injuries, as stress and anger can induce teeth grinding or clenching, which can aggravate or cause pain and injury. You can try to reduce stress in your life by considering exercise, meditation, time-management or seeing a counsellor to better manage your stress.
You should try to avoid repetitive jaw motion (e.g. chewing gum) and eating particularly hard food items where possible. These movements can be aggravating to structures which make up the temporomandibular joint, so you should try to stick to softer forms of food and movement, and allow opportunity for these structure to rest and repair.
In the instance of an acute injury to the TMJ, apply ice for the first 24-48 hours’ after the injury occurred to minimise the amount of swelling and inflammation in the area. We recommend application of ice for 20 minutes of every hour, avoiding direct skin contact with the ice (place a towel between). After the first few days, heat can be applied in the form of a heat pack as well, which encourages blood flow to region, promoting repair and relaxation of muscles.
Performing gentle jaw range of motion exercises within pain limits is also encouraged to prevent loss of range of motion and decrease stiffness. Your health professional will be able to provide and in-depth explanation and demonstration of these exercises where necessary.
It is time to seek professional help if your TMJ pain is getting progressively worse and if you are unable to perform normal activities or eat your normal foods. It is also important to seek help if your jaw mechanics are significantly altered or if your jaw locking/popping is not improving.
A health professional, such as an Osteopath, Physiotherapist or Chiropractor, will take an in depth history of your jaw pain and assess the jaw, neck and surrounding areas. They will perform provocative testing to establish which structure in your jaw is causing your pain, and then use a variety of techniques to help aid in your pain, decrease tension in the muscles, and increase the range of motion in the jaw joint.
At the end of your appointment your health professional will reassess the region for any improvements or changes, and will give you advice on how to best keep up your progress until your next appointment, which may include stretches and exercises.
* Note that without intervention, acute jaw pain can progress to chronic pain.