Pain and dysfunction in the jaw often is caused by a condition known as temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder. More than 10 million Americans are affected by this disorder, and it is slightly more common among women and people between the ages of 20 and 40.
Located just in front of the ears on each side of the face, the temporomandibular joint connects the jaw to the skull. A variety of soft tissues support the joint, including cartilage, muscles, ligaments, and an intra-joint disk. Damage to these tissues can seriously disrupt the normal function of the joint.
People with TMJ disorders often complain of jaw clicking, tightness, and pain; others report headaches, neck pain, and ringing in the ears. Left undiagnosed and untreated, TMJ disorders can lead to severe pain and functional impairment, particularly when it comes to everyday activities like chewing and talking.
Underlying factors that may contribute to the development of temporomandibular joint disorder include stress, jaw clenching, poor posture, fracture, teeth-grinding, bad tooth alignment, and lockjaw.
In some cases, the disorder is a delayed result of acute injury to the jaw. For example, children who suffer trauma to the jaw while playing sports may develop TMJ disorders later in life. Habitual nail-biting and gum-chewing can also lead to problems in the temporomandibular joint.
While some patients may have been advised that there is little they can do to address this diagnosis short of jaw surgery, physical therapy is actually a highly effective—and wholly non-invasive—option for treating TMJ disorders.
Physical therapy care plans for TMJ disorders will include both active and passive treatments. The therapist will use manual therapy techniques—including joint and soft tissue mobilization—to loosen the jaw and alleviate muscle tenderness. The therapist will also guide the patient through exercises designed to re-educate the muscles around the joint to move the way they are supposed to move. The patient may also receive a prescribed home exercise program to promote care continuity outside of the clinic.
In some cases, the therapist may perform dry needling to aid in pain reduction. Some patients may receive custom-fitted mouthguards or splints to combat jaw clenching or teeth-grinding at night.
Over time, as the jaw returns to a normal movement pattern, the patient’s pain and discomfort will subside or even disappear.