Do you have unexplained neck tension, jaw pain, or headaches?
Has your dentist told you that you grind your teeth or you have jaw issues, but you’re confused about the subjects of TMJ and TMD?
The jaw joints (one on each side) are called TMJ, which stands for Temporomandibular Joint. Jaw dysfunction is often referred to as ‘TMJ’, but that’s not really accurate. Jaw joint dysfunction is actually TMD (which stands for Temporomandibular Disorder).
TMD is a very common underlying cause of so many issues, including tightness, pain, clenching, or clicking in the jaw.
In today’s article, let’s take a deep dive into what causes TMD as well as how to stop it for good. We’ll use the terms ‘jaw’ or ‘TMJ’ interchangeably when referencing the actual jaw joints. And we’ll use ‘TMD’ to describe the various forms of dysfunction or disorders that we might experience from issues with our TMJ.
Disclaimer: We are not credentialed medical or dental professionals, so we can’t treat, diagnose, make recommendations, etc. We’re sharing this article for informational purposes only. If you suspect you have TMD, here’s a helpful resource you can use to find a qualified dentist to assist you.
Why I started studying TMJ and TMD
Necessity is the mother of invention. It’s the reason why we started OraWellness back in 2010, and in the context of this article, life gave me an opportunity to learn about the jaw joint…
This past spring, I was petting our horse, Laüre. His face was nestled into my chest while I was standing in front of him scratching around his ears. This had become an intimate bonding ritual for us.
He’s a flighty horse, and he got startled and suddenly jerked his head straight up. The bridge of his nose struck the underside of my chin, landing the hardest uppercut I’ve ever been hit with. 🙂
My jaw slammed closed and my head was knocked back hard enough that my neck made a big ‘crack’ sound. Dazed and just shy of being knocked out, I staggered back a couple of steps and sat down.
As I got my senses back, I started doing a thorough once-over to assess for damage. Questions like, “Did I just fracture my neck?” and, “What about my jaw?” were whizzing around in my mind.
I found that my neck was not broken (major relief!), and I could open my mouth, so no broken jaw.
My left inner cheek had gotten caught in between the forceful bite, which chewed up the flesh quite a bit. On the right side of my mouth, nothing had been between my teeth. So, two of my right molars were chipped from the force of the impact between my upper and lower teeth.
And, since there had been padding (cheek tissue) between my teeth on the left and nothing between my teeth on the right, upon impact, my jaw got knocked out of its proper alignment.
How did I know?
For weeks, every time I chewed anything, I would have pain in the right side of my jaw. Plus, I used my fingers to probe all around my jaw joints on both sides, and, sure enough, I could feel that my jaw wasn’t moving evenly when I opened and closed my mouth.
I realized then that this was serious business.
Thankfully, after a couple of chiropractic treatments and some extra efforts to reduce impact-related inflammation, I was able to feel which way my jaw was out, and with some direct massage, it slipped back into place. I’m thrilled to share that I no longer have any pain while chewing.
So now that we know the backstory of why I first started studying the jaw, let’s explore the one and only cause of TMD: stress.
The 3 types of TMD-related stress
When we really distill the research on jaw disorders, stress is the one common thread. Some stressors might actually cause jaw disorders, while others might just exacerbate any existing dysfunction.
To be clear, this is our opinion based on our firsthand experience with jaw issues and our study of the research. If you are aware of other factors that come into play, please share about them in the comments below this article so we can all learn from each other’s experiences.
There is strong evidence that our tendency to clench and hold tension in the jaw muscles may be linked to our mental and emotional health. For example, anxiety or depression can certainly contribute to jaw tension.
Here are some strategies to serve as reminders of how we all can keep our stress levels (and jaw tension) in check. Feel free to use the ones that feel good to you and leave the rest–there is no right or wrong here. 🙂
- Take a walk around the block
- Play or do something fun
- Spend time in nature and in sunlight (bonus: stand barefoot, sit, or lie down on the ground outside to get the benefits of earthing)
- Spend time with loved ones (including pets!)
- Make time for extra sleep
- Consider whether supplements like adaptogens, B vitamins, vitamin C, vitamin D, and/or magnesium feel like a good fit for you
- Do your favorite workout or exercises
- Meditate (there are lots of free guided meditations on YouTube)
- Practice breathing exercises
- Do some journaling
- Try tapping / Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT)
- Find an activity that puts you into flow and do it (it can be anything, from crafting, to cooking, to cleaning, to SCUBA diving–whatever you enjoy doing that makes the time fly by)
- Make a list of what you’re grateful for in your life
- Practice some mindfulness techniques
- Listen to music (and sing or dance along if you’d like)
- Drink a warm beverage (a warm cup of tea can be super soothing–like a hug from the inside out)
- Practice smiling
- Try some soothing essential oils
- Get it off your chest: talk about what you’re going through with someone you trust
- Use homeopathy to support a shift in mental and emotional habits and help stop the habit of tensing the jaw muscles (we’ll talk about homeopathy more in the “Solutions” section below)
Mechanical stress to the TMJ stems from a few main sources.
First, if a person is in an accident where their head, neck, or jaw receives some force of impact, this stress can certainly initiate jaw problems. Any external force where the face is impacted strongly can cause the jaw to be misaligned. It can be anything from a child falling down and hitting their face, to tumbling down stairs and jarring your spine and neck along the way, to a car accident, to a horse headbutting you. If left untreated, this initial stress could certainly turn into chronic TMD. That’s why in these situations, it can be helpful to work with a chiropractor or physical therapist to make sure the spine, neck, and jaw are still in proper alignment.
Second, if you grind your teeth due to poor airway function (more about this in part two of this article series), your jaw musculature may be working overtime, which can cause discomfort and, over time, establish chronic jaw issues.
Another often-overlooked cause of mechanical stress to the jaw joint is new fillings that aren’t sufficiently contoured. As a result, the bite is slightly compromised with every chew. This is why it’s so important to tell your dentist if your bite doesn’t feel right after you’ve had dental work done. They need to correct the dental work to bring your bite back to its normal state. Otherwise, you could have ‘downstream’ complications.
It’s kind of like being off course to the moon by only 1 degree–it doesn’t sound like a big deal at first blush, but it can have big consequences over time. A filling that causes the teeth to meet differently because it’s a little too ‘tall’ can force the jaw to work unevenly, progressively causing more and more stress with the repetitive chewing motion. We wrote about this years ago in an article titled, “Can a simple filling impact our whole body health?“. Dr. Mark Breiner also touches on this topic in his expert interview, “Creating Positive Changes in Your Health“.
Thankfully, the field of neuromuscular dentistry is growing. Experts like Dr. Clayton Chan specialize in teaching dentists how to address jaw misalignment issues in their practices.
We believe that poor posture tends to be the most common root cause of most TMJ-related disorders.
How many people do you know who have excellent posture? Are you one of them?
For better and for worse, gravity is always pulling us down. It’s great because it keeps us from randomly flying around, but it also means that if we want to stay upright to sit, walk, or run, we have to work a little and engage our muscles.
The problem is that in today’s modern world, most of us perform very repetitive tasks for the majority of our work (and even leisure) time. If we’re doing desk work, we tend to sit more than is ideal. If we’re doing a job that keeps us on our feet all day, we tend to stand and walk more than is ideal, etc. Over time, we tend to unconsciously get into movement patterns which lack diversity, and gravity starts to take its toll on our posture. Our shoulders slump forward, our back bends forward, and our head and neck start to move forward. Slowly but surely, this breakdown begins to impact our airways and yep, you guessed it, our jaw muscles.
The posture/airway/jaw connection is a weightier topic that we’ll cover more in part two of this article series. In the meantime, let’s unpack some solutions that can help to both stop acute jaw pain and address the underlying cause of TMD.
Solutions: how to stop head, neck, and jaw pain for good
Chronic pain can create a negative feedback loop where the pain creates stress, which creates more pain, etc.
So, first let’s discuss strategies that we’ve used to reduce or eliminate our own acute pain. Then we’ll explore how to stop the cause of jaw issues.
Immediate help to stop the pain
Let’s be clear: stopping the acute pain is not addressing the root cause. But stopping acute pain can help to break the negative feedback loop where jaw pain creates more tension, which creates more pain, etc.
Direct massage: Massaging around the jaw joints can really help relieve local tension. It can also help to bring our awareness to the area so we can consciously choose to release and relax the region. Here’s an older video tutorial where we discuss a massage technique to help clear stagnation around the ears and jaws.
Jaw exercises: Just like all of the other muscles in the body, jaw muscles are susceptible to the “Use It or Lose It” principle. Regularly exercising our jaw improves range of motion, and it also helps to release tension and relax overworked jaw musculature. A quick internet search for ‘TMD jaw exercises’ will provide lots of ideas for you. Feel free to also check out our expert interview with the Kieferfreund folks who specialize in supportive exercises to optimize jaw health.
Homeopathics: Homeopathic medicine may also help to address the pain associated with TMD. I definitely grabbed some Arnica 200 after my horse headbutt. The goal of homeopathy is to help the body correct underlying imbalances. So depending on what you’ve got going on, if you find the right remedy for your situation, it may actually wind up providing long-lasting support. However, it can be tricky to find the correct remedy, and if we don’t find the right one(s), we won’t get our desired results. So, to help you find the right remedy for your needs, here’s a resource that explores using homeopathic medicine to address TMD symptoms. Or, you could even work with a qualified homeopath who can help guide you.
With these immediate pain relief options in place, let’s shift into addressing more long-term solutions…
To really stop TMD for good, we have to approach this holistically and look beyond the jaw itself. And there’s no better place to start this journey than the powerful muscle group that’s located between our two jaw joints.
Finding ‘home’ for your tongue to stop TMD for good
For jaw pain that doesn’t stem from an acute injury or misaligned dental work, the most powerful solution is to develop the habit of keeping your tongue on the roof of your mouth throughout the day.
At OraWellness, we refer to this as learning to ‘find home’ for your tongue. We explore this strategy in our article and video tutorial titled, “How to Straighten Teeth Without Braces“.
How does keeping the tongue resting on the roof of the mouth stop jaw pain?
The tongue’s ‘home’ position has powerful restorative benefits for the jaw because it helps to relax the musculature that closes our jaw joints.
Whenever we’re engaging one muscle, we’re also automatically affecting antagonist muscles. For example, our upper arms have muscles to bend the elbow (the biceps) and muscles to straighten the elbow (the triceps). These are antagonistic muscle groups, meaning when we activate or contract the biceps, neuromuscular signaling will prompt its antagonist (the triceps) to do the opposite and relax or lengthen.
Similarly, by learning how to find ‘home’ for your tongue, you’ll be providing neuromuscular signaling to relax and calm the jaw muscles.
Thanks to our decades of study in the Chinese longevity arts, Susan and I have already developed the habit of keeping our tongues in the ‘home’ position at the roof of our mouths. However, we first learned about the connection between tongue position and jaw tension from Dr. Mike Mew in our expert interview titled, “Intro to Mewing: How Facial Muscle Tone & Body Posture Impact Oral & Whole-Body Health“.
And like we mentioned above, we took another deep dive into the details of tongue placement and everything jaw related in our expert interview with Julia and Felix from Kieferfreund.
Both Dr. Mew and the Kieferfreund folks share some helpful tips regarding the jaw and tongue posture, so if you haven’t seen the videos yet, it’s definitely worthwhile to check them out.
In our next article on this subject of jaw issues and TMD, we’ll unpack a broad, multi-system breakdown (as well as solutions!) involving airway health, the dental arch, and postural alignment.
In the meantime, we hope you found some useful gems in this article, and for anyone with jaw pain, headaches, or neck tension, we encourage you to explore the helpful resource links below.
What about you? Have you ever had issues with your TMJ? What have you found helpful for either short-term relief or long-term results? Please share in the comments below so we can all learn from each other’s experience.
Helpful, related resources:
- Self-Empowerment for TMD: Using Awareness & Tongue Posture To Relax the Jaw & Mind [[expert interview video with Julia and Felix from Kieferfreund]]
- Intro to Mewing: How Facial Muscle Tone & Body Posture Impact Oral & Whole-Body Health [[expert interview video with Dr. Mike Mew]]
- Helpful resources to find a qualified dentist to assist you [article]
- Our Story [OraWellness’ origin story]
- Smile your way to greater health and happiness [article]
- How to use essential oils to reduce dental appointment anxiety and pain [article]
- Can a simple filling impact our whole body health? [article]
- Creating Positive Changes in Your Health [[expert interview video with Dr. Mark Breiner]]
- How to Stop Your Cell Phone from Causing Tooth Decay [video tutorial]
- Homeopathy Solutions for Dental Pain, Dental Anxiety, Canker Sores, Tonsil Stones, and More [[expert interview video with homeopath Joette Calabrese]]
- How to Straighten Teeth Without Braces [[article and video]]