If you wake up with headaches, frequently have sore or sensitive teeth, struggle with neck pain, or experience tenderness in your face, you may have temporomandibular joint syndrome. Wait…what? While it sounds very serious, temporomandibular joint syndrome, or simply TMJ, is the term to describe a constellation of symptoms that arise from the joint that connects your jaw to your skull.
Located just in front of your ears, your TMJ is engaged every time you open your mouth to eat, talk, or yawn. When the joint becomes misaligned, inflamed, or injured in any way, you may experience symptoms. Common complaints that may point to TMJ syndrome include frequently waking up in the morning with a headache, tooth grinding, tenderness in your face, pain in the joint itself, and neck or shoulder pain. You may also find it hard to open your mouth very wide, have sensitive teeth, feel like your teeth don’t fit together well when you bite, or hear popping or clicking noises when you eat.
There are a number of causes of TMJ symptoms, including injury to your jaw, whiplash, a head or neck injury, and arthritis in the joint. By far however, the most common cause of TMJ symptoms is teeth grinding or clenching. Clenching your teeth is frequently an unconscious reaction to the stress in your life. Many tooth grinders are completely unaware that they do so until they begin to experience symptoms. In most cases tooth clenching occurs at nighttime, which is why so many people are unaware that they do it. It’s only when they wake up with a sore face or a headache that a tooth grinder will begin to question what went on while they were asleep.
In many cases, the problem is coming from your masseter muscle, which is a small muscle at the bottom corner of your jaw that makes chewing possible. While the masseter is small, ounce for ounce, it’s the strongest muscle in your body. So when it gets tight, it can wreak havoc on your TMJ, as well as the muscles in your head, neck, and shoulders.
In Chinese medicine, TMJ is usually diagnosed as a blockage of qi and blood which is hampering the circulation of blood to the area. It may also be diagnosed as something called a Bi syndrome, which is a blockage in the joint itself. There are a number of energetic pathways that pass through the affected area, and there are three acupuncture points that are actually right at the site of the joint itself.
I am asked if acupuncture can help someone with TMJ symptoms. In most cases it can be an effective treatment option for several reasons. First, acupuncture helps to relieve stress, which can reduce clenching. Research on the physiological effects of acupuncture have shown that it increases the circulation of feel-good, relaxing chemicals in your brain.
Second, acupuncture can help loosen the masseter muscles involved in clenching, as well as peripheral muscles on the side of your head and in your neck and shoulders that may become tight as a result. Acupuncture can also increase circulation in the joint and muscles affected, helping to speed up the healing process. And finally, a few sessions on your acupuncturist’s table can work wonders for headaches of any kind, including those that arise from TMJ.
Beyond acupuncture, there are some things that you can do on your own to help alleviate the symptoms of TMJ syndrome. Here are a few tips:
- First and most important, clenching and grinding your teeth is almost always related to stress. Many patients I have worked with have found that their symptoms go away while they’re on vacation. Finding ways to relieve, decrease, or eliminate the stress in your life may be all that you need to do to get your TMJ to calm down. While finding activities to relieve stress may just feel like more stress, small changes like backing away from a toxic co-worker, taking a little more time to do some things you want to do, or remembering to use all your vacation days may collectively be enough to help ease your symptoms.
- Avoid hard, dense, chewy foods. Also steer away from foods that require that you open wide to eat them. Bagels, large sandwiches, tough meat, and hard candy are all good candidates to avoid.
- Spit out the gum, please! The constant motion of gum chewing will only serve to aggravate an inflamed TMJ.
- Try a little heat. Warming the area of your TMJ and masseter serves two purposes. First the heat opens the blood vessels in the area and increases circulation. This helps move the inflammation out of the area. Second, a warm muscle becomes loose and more relaxed.
- Try a night guard. This is a small appliance that keeps you from clenching your teeth at night. You can talk to your dentist about making one for you. It involves taking a mold of your teeth (usually just your uppers) for a custom fit.
- While you’re at the dentist, inquire about having your bite checked and adjust it if necessary. This usually involves smoothing one or more of your teeth to make sure that they fit together well. For people with severely misaligned teeth, fixing your bite could be more involved and may involve braces.
- Massage your masseter muscles. Using your thumbs to massage in a downward motion on your masseter muscles can help loosen them up and pull your lower jaw downward to relieve some of the tension that comes with grinding. Can’t find your masseters? Clench your back teeth together and you will feel bulging muscles at the lower corner of your jaw. They’re the ones you want to work on.
Clenching your teeth, whiplash, or a misaligned bite is not necessarily a life sentence of TMJ symptoms. Get some acupuncture, check with your dentist, work on ditching the stress, and avoid bagels and gum. Becoming symptom-free from TMJ is very possible.
Cindy Chamberlain is an acupuncturist in Overland Park, KS and the founder of Eastern Healing Solutions, LLC. She is licensed in Kansas and Missouri and has been practicing traditional Chinese medicine since 1996.