Ask A Physical Therapist: What is TMJ Dysfunction?

The temporomandibular joint (TMJ) is the hinge joint that connects the lower jaw (mandible) to the temporal bone of the skull, which is immediately in front of the ear on each side of your head. The joints are flexible, allowing the jaw to move smoothly up and down and side to side and enabling you to talk, chew, and yawn. Muscles attached to and surrounding the jaw joint control the position and movement of the jaw. It is meant to withstand large and repeated stresses.

However, this joint can at times become painful and problematic for some. This is referred to as temporomandibular dysfunction (TMD). Injury to the jaw, TMJ, or muscles of the head and neck — such as from a heavy blow or whiplash — can cause TMD.

Other possible causes include:

  • Grinding or clenching the teeth, putting increased pressure on the TMJ
  • Dislocation of the soft cushion or disc between the ball and socket of the TMJ
  • Presence of osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis in the TMJ
  • Stress, which can cause a person to tighten facial and jaw muscles or clench the teeth
  • Alignment issues throughout the upper cervical spine

Common symptoms of TMD include:

  • Headaches
  • Painful/non-painful clicking and popping
  • Locking of the jaw in an open or closed position
  • Pain or tenderness in the face, jaw joint area, neck and shoulders, and in or around the ear when you chew, speak, or open your mouth wide
  • Fatigue of the jaw
  • Swelling in the side of the face

A physical therapist can assess movement dysfunction and weakness to aide in developing a program for you that includes learning and practicing techniques for regaining normal jaw movement and decreasing pain.
The focus of physical therapy for TMD is relaxation, stretching, and releasing tight muscles and scar tissue. Physical therapy is an especially important part of recovery from TMJ surgery, as it helps minimize scar tissue formation and muscle tightness.

Physical therapy techniques may include:

  • Jaw exercises to strengthen muscles and improve flexibility and range of motion.
  • Modalities, such as ultra sound therapy, to improve blood circulation in the jaw.
  • Massage to relieve overall muscle tension.
  • Training to improve posture and correct jaw alignment.

For more specific information and assessment of TMD, feel free to contact our clinic to schedule an appointment with one of our physical therapists.

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