Friday, June 1, 2012

What's TMJ? And what you can do about it.

People come into the office on a daily basis and say "I'm here to see the chiropractor because I have TMJ" so this post is for those of you who have experienced the jaw pain, neck pain, headaches, or inability to chew that is associate with "TMJ."
The first thing to look at is the acronym "TMJ"... what does it stand for? The medical name is Temperomandibular Joint. If we break this down further into its separate parts we have three separate terms. The first word is Tempero, which truly means Temporal. The temporal bone is part of your skull. The second word is Mandibular, which means mandible...which means Jaw. The third word is Joint which simply means the area where bones come together. So if we look at them all together we get the Joint where your Jaw meets your Skull.
When someone walks into the office and says "I have TMJ" its the same thing as saying "I have elbow" which is kind of funny when you think about it.  But what these people actually mean is that they have TMJ pain, and it can be quite debilitating. The symptoms range from pain during eating or chewing, to massive headaches, to neck or ear pain.
Many people start to develop TMJ pain randomly, without any injury or trauma. Others develop this pain after dental work, such as surgery, which forces their jaw to be open for a prolonged period of time. There's numerous other reasons people will develop TMJ pain such as problems in the neck, imbalances in the muscles of the face, and chewing gum. But regardless of what the cause may be there is always a solution.
Causes of TMJ Pain:
The true causes of pain in the jaw are muscle or joint related. It's very rare to get TMJ pain because of your teeth, or because of how you bite down. Many people will experience TMJ pain after dental work and will logically head back to their oral surgeon for help, who then fits them for a mouth guard. Unfortunately the TMJ pain isn't caused by a lack of a mouth guard, you didn't have the pain before the work was done so something must have happened to the actual jaw. So these people may get a little relief by using a mouth guard as a crutch but it's usually not permanent or dramatic.
When you are forced to hold your jaw open for a prolonged period of time the muscles in your jaw get very tired, and they will normally get very tight or go into a small spasm. This is because they aren't used to being worked in such a manor. When these muscles become overly tight it becomes painful to open or close the mouth, chew food, yawn, or talk. Jaw and facial muscles need to be evaluated by someone who specializes in muscles and joints to see where there may be tight and spastic muscles.
Other causes of TMJ pain are related to tight muscles in your neck or joint tightness in your neck and jaw. Some people who slump at their desk all day or who have forward head posture will develop jaw pain. As we sit for long periods of time the muscles in the back of our necks gets fatigued and the muscles in the front of our neck become short and tight. Specifically the Sternocleidomastoid(SCM) muscles in the front of the neck can be problematic. Sometimes people will get jaw pain because the back of their necks get fatigued and the neck itself become very stiff and rigid. This doesn't allow for normal motion in the neck and this can irritate the nerves coming from the neck and going to the jaw. Chiropractic care can help these issues. Also, people who have been in car accidents and experienced whiplash will be more prone to TMJ problems due to the stress on the neck. This presentation is almost always a case for your chiropractor because they deal with car accidents and whiplash on a daily basis.
Some strategies to try:
1. Sleep on your back with a cervical pillow. A cervical pillow is one with a dip in the center. It enables your neck to get back into alignment while sleeping and may take pressure off the neck and jaw.
2. Test your SCM muscles by squeezing them. Some parts of these muscles may refer pain into the jaw or ear during squeezing. Apply pressure for 2 minutes to relieve these trigger points.
3. Visit your chiropractor to have them check your SCM muscles, your posture, and the back of your neck for areas that may be too tight and may be causing irritation.
4. Don't chew gum.
Doctors Note:  Remember, the next time you go into your doctors office and say "I have TMJ" it's just like saying "I have elbow."  :)

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