TMJ pain is an affliction experienced by 3/4 of Americans.
What used to be thought of as primarily a mechanical problem is now being cited as a problem most likely due to soft tissue imbalances. The need for surgery and appliances most often can be avoided by simply alleviating the tension that is pulling this joint out of alignment.
The Temporomandibular joint is a sliding hinge joint that forms between the two temporal bones on the sides of the cranium and the lower jaw bone (mandible). Also important within the joint is a disc which moves forward as the jaw opens and back when it closes. This disc allows for shock absorption during chewing, talking, yawning and laughing. The timing of this disc motion is vital for a healthy joint as well. A disc that fails to move adequately can be compressed within the joint or actually cause the joint to become stuck. No laughing matter.
There are several very powerful muscles of mastication (chewing) that attach to the bones of the TMJ joint which allow us to tackle ambitious endeavors such as that bagel sandwich you had for lunch. The lateral pterygoid muscle attaches to the disc itself and pulls it forward precisely at the correct rate of speed to allow for a nice smooth opening of the jaw.
Jaw Pain and Stress
The powerful jaw muscles are innervated by nerves that become excited when the body perceives stress – (to be a bit more technical, whenever the reticular activating system is stimulated). If you’re stressed, that jaw of yours becomes tighter and the TMJ joint is further compressed. It happens automatically. Hopefully, when the stress is over, you relax that jaw. Of course, if the stress is chronic – that tension becomes a big problem for the TMJ joint.
TMJ and Craniosacral Therapy
Proper mechanics of the TMJ is dependent upon balance and synchrony of the craniosacral system. The temporal bones have a subtle oscillation that allows for the movement of cerebrospinal fluid. When that balance is disrupted – due to a blow to head for example- the TMJ joint becomes slightly off kilter as well. But the effects don’t stop there. The temporal bones oscillate in synchrony with the ilia of the pelvis. If either of these paired bones loses its rhythm, then symptoms can be felt in either the pelvis or the cranium/jaw. So consider for a moment that you fell off a horse onto your tail bone. A couple weeks later, you start having neck and jaw discomfort. Yes, your TMJ is affected. But treatment for it needs to begin by rebalancing your pelvis.
Fascia and TMJ
Fascia, of course, affects every joint. But many fascial restrictions that are primarily in the region of the neck and shoulder girdle can affect the delicate balance of the TMJ. So in addition to looking at the jaw itself, proper treatment would also include releasing any restrictions found in the neck and shoulders. And as mentioned above, the pelvis needs to be balanced as well.
Take Home Message
If you are having jaw pain, but have only had treatment localized to the jaw, you might be missing the big picture. Consider having you therapist check for pelvic symmetry. Clear out fascial restrictions of the pelvis, neck, and shoulders. Learn to “de-stress” so that excessive tone isn’t carried in the jaw. Have a craniosacral treatment to restore synchronized motion to this system. And smile, it will get better.