TMJ is an abbreviation for temporo mandibular joint, and refers to the place where the mandible or lower jaw meets the temporal (temple) part of the skull.
So technically speaking, everybody who was born with a jaw has a TMJ or temporo mandibular joint (two, to be correct, one left and one right). Without them we couldn’t chew, talk, laugh, sing or yawn. It becomes a temporo mandibular joint disorder, a TMD, or TMJ syndrome, when there is dysfunction of any sort.
A lot of issues with this joint have to do with improper alignment causing friction, strain, uneven wear and inflammation leading to pain and discomfort. Since we need to be able to move our jaw sideways as well as up and down, this joint is not hinged like, for example, the elbow but is held in place by muscles and ligaments to allow for a bigger range of movement and flexibility. If these structures are excessively tight — or tighter on one side than the other — it affects the alignment of the joint. Reasons for that can be an incorrect bite, direct injury to the jaw as in boxing, a habitual head forward position, spinal curves or tension in the neck.
Other, less obvious reasons can be stress, anxiety, anger, aggression, or straining to lift heavy objects, all of which can cause tightness through unconscious clenching of the jaw. Further possible causes include degenerative joint disease, infections, tumors or fibromyalgia.
Take a minute and gently shift your lower jaw side-to-side, forward and back, around in circles, and notice how it feels. Are there areas where the movement is smooth or places with little hang-ups, perhaps accompanied by small popping noises? Tight spots would cause those. Now, notice again how your jaw and the muscles attached to it feel … relaxed or somewhat tight? If you feel tension, does it feel like it has been tight for a while without you noticing? Just checking.
If you are like me when I first did that exercise you probably realize now that you haven’t really paid a lot of attention to your jaw muscles before. Congratulations. You just became more aware of your TMJ.
Here is another little exercise that can give you sensory information about the alignment of your jaw and illustrates how close to the ear canal it actually is: Gently insert your little fingers into your ears, only as far as they go without using any force. Now slowly open and close your mouth and feel the movement of your jaw under your fingertips. Notice the direction and quality of the movement. Is it the same on both sides or are there irregularities? Does one side start to move sooner than the other? Explore the range of movement without straining … fascinating, isn’t it?
So what are the symptoms of TMD or TMJ syndrome?
If you’ve noticed tightness and little popping sounds in your jaw without pain, while doing the exercises outlined above, don’t be alarmed. Just check in with the area every once in a while throughout your day and consciously let go of any tension you may feel. Move it around a bit, gently stretching and loosening the muscles, like you would loosen up your shoulders by rolling them.
If however jaw noise is accompanied by pain or discomfort, it is difficult or painful to open or close the jaw, or biting and chewing hurts, we’d be moving into the realm of TMD. Other symptoms could be face pain or tenderness, accompanying neck/shoulder pain, headache or migraine. Since the TMJ is so close to the ear canal as well as the eyes, dysfunction in the joint can also contribute to earache, vision problems or eye watering. Always first consult with a doctor specializing in these areas.
Treatment of tension related TMD focuses on the soft tissues of the face, head, neck and shoulders, and can be administered by massage therapists or physical therapists versed in treating TMJ issues. In certain cases, work on the small muscles inside the mouth may be necessary. This should only be performed by dentists, physical therapists or massage therapists with specific training, and requires special permits in some states.
Rule of thumb: if your jaw works smoothly for you, appreciate it and smile.
A certified massage therapist since 1996, Ata Susanne Morse has been providing therapeutic massage and bodywork in Moab since 2009. She can be reached by phone or text at 435-260-2874 and via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org