A Massage Therapy Approach to Jaw Pain and Dysfunction


The jaw (or TMJ for Tempromandibular Joint) is frequently unacknowledged as a source of pain in many head, neck, face and vocal conditions.  People who experience headaches, motor vehicle accidents, sports or work site injuries, often have jaw issues that can accumulate to overwhelming levels.  Clenching the teeth is a very common habit during sleep, while concentrating, or from stress.  This often results in an accumulation of both compressive forces in the joints and asymmetrical muscle tightness which can lead to clicking, pain and ultimately joint damage.  Resolving the joint compression and muscular tightness can re-pattern the jaw mechanics helping prevent difficulties later in life.  Treatment involves working directly on the chewing muscles.  Accessing the chewing muscles involves working inside the mouth for 20 to 30 seconds at a time, alternating between right and left sides.  Releasing muscle tightness and joint compression encourages mechanical symmetry, address pain, and can contribute to improving your bite.

Why do some jaw joints click?

The jaw is unique in that it operates as two separate joints bound together by one bone…the mandible.  The muscles that move the joints work in tandem with how the teeth fit together (occlusion), along with the fit of the cranial bones, creating a system of interrelated mechanics.  All is well when the jaw joints work within functional symmetry. However, if one side begins to move differently, compensation patterns can begin.

These adaptive movements can begin a cycle where some tissues are overworked and eventually become compromised.  A special friction reducing disc exists inside the joint, much like the discs in the spine.  The disc maintains space in the joint, and moves forward and back in co-ordination with opening and closing the mouth.  Joint compression and muscle tightness often accumulate resulting in an abnormally forward disc position.  Then, as the mandible (jaw bone) moves, the disc bunches up like a speed bump on the road, producing a click as the jaw bone gets pulled past.  If the clicking becomes chronic, there is a risk of disc damage which could lead pain and arthritis.

Musicians and Speakers, Singers, brass and woodwind musicians as well as teachers, broadcasters and clergy will all know the value of good jaw mechanics.  If there is stiffness, pain, or joint clicking, there is surely a reduction in air flow, vocal projection and resonance.Restoring symmetrical function, resolving and joint restrictions can be extremely valuable both personally and professionally.

What to expect:

A series of 3-8 weekly treatments is often required in an attempt to re-pattern the dysfunction.  Treatment goals and criteria for detecting progress will be established so you may measure effectiveness.  Long standing issues can be frequently improved, but not resolved.  In these cases clients will have a briefer initial series then move to monthly or seasonal visits of 2 treatments within a week to keep old patterns from recurring; feeling well for longer is the intent.

Connecting the dots…

Assessment begins with looking at the symmetry of the mouth opening and closing, and habits of clenching and/or grinding.  The health and function of the sinuses, ears, cranial bones, speech and breathing patterns, as well as dental history will all be considered.  Pain is often reduced when the tightness in the chewing muscles is diminished or resolved.  TMJ pain and dysfunction frequently involves a vicious cycle comprised of many primary and secondary components.  The goal is to identify and separate the components so that they are no longer influencing each other.

Jaw pain and dysfunction may be secondary to other conditions.  Those who are troubled by headaches often have clenching and TMJ dysfunction as a silent contributor.  Many cases of Scoliosis or Low Back Pain also present with TMJ difficulties.  Motor vehicle accidents and sports injuries often lay the foundation for TMJ issues.

Massage Therapy’s holistic approach can address these related issues as well.
By: Nicole Hurley MT.