You may not realise how important the Temporomandibular Joint (TMJ) is until it starts to become an issue.
The TMJ is an interconnected network of muscles, bone, ligaments and nerves. It’s the joint that connects our jaws to our skull. It enables us to talk and to chew food among other things. This means that a TMJ disorder can be hugely obstructive to our social lives and basic health. It also means that it’s one of the most common underlying causes behind jaw pain, so learning how to specifically relieve the TMJ could help you to get back to normal.
TMJ disorders (also referred to as TMD) can be caused by several things, including the following:
- Bruxism, or the excessive grinding and clenching of teeth either asleep or awake
- Anxiety, which spurs teeth grinding
- Trauma to the head and jaw
- Displacement of the articular disc
- Degenrative disorder of the joint, e.g. arthritis
- Here are some simple, effective remedies that reduce the pain associated with TMD, and help the joint to get back to normal function.
Ice and Heat Packs
If you begin to experience swelling in the area, especially from trauma to the head or jaw, application of an ice pack will help to reduce swelling in the area.
Ice and heat packs are both useful. If applied one after the other, pain and swelling can be minimised effectively. Ice should be applied first in cases of trauma. Ice helps to reduce pain in a number of ways:
- It can override other sensations of pain
- It inhibits the receptors responsible for feeling heat and pain
- It constricts capillaries around the TMJ, which relieves pressure around the joint
- Applying heat afterwards will dilate the blood vessels around the TMJ. This allows vital nutrients and platelets carried around the blood to reach areas with poor blood flow. This, in turn, begins to heal damaged tissue.
Integrate this into your daily routine, particularly in the morning when pain is likely to be more noticeable.
Nightguards or Occlusal Splints
Nightguards or occlusal splints are a commonly prescribed treatment for bruxism, and other conditions that involve the excessive grinding of teeth. This grinding and repetitive action can strain the ligaments, and inflame the muscles around the TMJ.
Nightguards worn overnight will help to separate the teeth, preventing them from being worn down. You would much rather wearing down the acrylic of the nightguard rather than your previous teeth! However, don’t worry, splints are very durable and will usually last many years. Splints can also help reduce the strain in our chewing muscles, thus reducing the pain associated with waking up from a night of teeth grinding.
Jaw Stretches and Massages
Gentle massages to relieve pressure points around the TMJ can help to improve circulation and reduce inflammation around the jaw. Start with repetitions of:
- Slowly but fully opening the jaw
- Side to side mandible movement
- Moving your bottom jaw to and fro in front of the top incisors
You may also want to focus on the masseter muscle (your cheek muscles), which is one of the most important and powerful muscles involved in chewing. Massaging this can be a remedy for muscle soreness. Located under the ear and toward the bottom corners of your jaw, gently rub in a circular motion until pain is relieved.
You can also visit your physiotherapist and they can often alleviate any painful episodes and guide you with appropriate jaw exercises. There are many physiotherapists that specialises in TMD. Ring around and find one that has the experience. Alternatively, you can ask us at your check up for a recommendation.
Maintain Good Posture
Though it may seem unintuitive, your posture can affect your dental health. Poor posture can lead to excessive strain on particular joints and muscles along the spine and neck in a chain reaction, similar to how a misaligned tooth can end up affecting an entire jaw.
To improve posture, it’s worth integrating some form of regular stretching of the back, neck and shoulder muscles into an exercise routine. Take care to ensure that the head does not hover in front of the body as this places intense stress on neck muscles, pulling the jaw back.
Similarly, maintain a straight back when sitting and lifting heavy objects.
Adjust Your Diet
A diet rich in tough and chewy foods will only exacerbate the pain and give your facial and jaw muscles less time to recover from the strain. This includes things such as chewing gum, cured meats, candies, certain breads and nuts.
Instead, adjust your diet to include softer, easily digestible foods that may not require as much movement from the jaws. It is also important to avoid sugar-rich foods, as they can accelerate tooth decay and exacerbate existing dental issues.
Chew slowly and thoughtfully, adjusting the chewing loads between both sides of the mouth.
Over the counter anti-inflammatory medications such as Aspirin and Ibuprofen can help by offering mild, but fast-acting pain relief. These can help to relax the muscles by reducing overall levels of swelling, and are readily purchasable at any pharmacy.
If pain reaches significantly distressing levels, a doctor/dentist may prescribe corticosteroids or muscle relaxants. These also serve to reduce inflammation and muscle activity, but they come with risks that should be discussed with your medical professional.
Rest is a crucial component of rehabilitating from any injury. Avoid bodily stressors such as contact sports and intensive exercise until swelling and pain is manageable. Similarly, anxiety can contribute to the grinding of teeth and therefore the inflammation of jaw muscles; talking to a mental health professional can help with finding treatment strategies.
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