What is Temporomandibular joint (TMJ)?

Lexi Tenase explains the detail and most importantly how Physiotherapy can help!

Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) dysfunction is a common condition affecting a significant number of individuals all over the world. The TMJ is the joint that connects the jawbone to the skull, and it plays a role in breathing, eating and speech. When this joint becomes dysfunctional, it can lead to a range of painful symptoms, impacting daily life and overall well-being. In this blog, I’ll share some of my experience in treating TMJ dysfunction in Canada and more recently in the UK. I will shed light on this condition, its causes, symptoms, and most importantly… how physiotherapy can play a pivotal role in providing significant relief!

Understanding TMJ Pain Dysfunction:

TMJ pain and/ or dysfunction, also known as temporomandibular disorder (TMD), encompasses various conditions affecting the TMJ and the surrounding structures. The exact cause of TMD is often multifactorial and can include factors such as jaw misalignment, muscle tension, stress, teeth grinding, arthritis, or injury to the joint- or, as often is the case, some combination of these factors. As a result, individuals with TMD may experience symptoms like jaw pain, clicking or popping sounds in the jaw, limited mouth opening, headaches, earaches, and difficulty in chewing.

I’ve treated patients in Canada as well as in the UK who suffer from TMD. Besides the typical TMD symptoms mentioned above, there are three common symptoms associated with TMD that I’ve noticed my patients were also experiencing:

  1. Frequent Headaches: Not only are headaches a common symptom for several disorders but sometimes they don’t point to a larger disorder at all. Because they are so often hard to diagnose, they’re often overlooked by both patients and doctors. If you regularly experience headaches, however, they may be a sign of TMJ. Tension headaches are the most common headache associated with TMJ, and are usually felt as a “vice-like” pressure in the head. Tension headaches, however, can also trigger migraines, which affect millions of people. Although TMJ hasn’t been definitively linked to migraines, it’s possible there is a connection between an overstimulated trigeminal nerve, which is irritated by TMJ.
  2. Vertigo or Dizziness: Have you frequently experienced vertigo or dizziness throughout your day? This could be a sign of TMJ. In order to maintain balance, your brain relies on your vestibular system in your inner ear, information gathered from your eyes, and your body’s sense of muscles and joints. The vestibular system is located in your inner ear, within your temporal bone, which is also where your jaw attaches to your skull. Inflammation and jaw misalignment stemming from TMJ can lead to misalignment or dysfunction of the vestibular system, causing conflicting brain signals that could affect your balance or lead to dizziness.
  3. Tinnitus or Ear Pain Tinnitus, also known as ringing in the ears, coupled with ear pain can also be a sign of TMJ. When your jaw is out of alignment or the muscles around the joint become inflamed, this could cause or contribute to spasms which cause pain in the inner ear. While tinnitus is a somewhat difficult condition to diagnose, as it is not fully understood, these spasms could also contribute to ringing noises in the ears. Some studies show that about 80% of people with TMJ experience tinnitus and other ear-related symptoms.

The Role of Physiotherapy:

Physiotherapists play a crucial role in the management and treatment of TMJ pain dysfunction. Our expertise (casual brag) in anatomy, biomechanics, and therapeutic techniques make us uniquely qualified to address the root causes of TMD and provide targeted relief.

So, let’s explore some of the ways physiotherapy can help individuals with TMJ pain dysfunction:

  1. Comprehensive Assessment: We will begin by conducting a thorough assessment of the jaw joint, neck, and surrounding muscles to identify the underlying factors contributing to TMD. This assessment may include evaluating posture, range of motion, muscle strength, and identifying any trigger points.
  2. Pain Management: Physiotherapy can effectively alleviate TMJ pain through various manual techniques like joint mobilisations, soft tissue release, and therapeutic exercises. These techniques help reduce muscle tension, improve blood flow, and promote healing in the affected areas.
  3. Postural Correction: Poor posture can contribute to TMJ dysfunction. Physiotherapists can educate on proper posture during daily activities and provide exercises to strengthen the postural muscles, thereby reducing stress on the TMJ.
  4. Jaw Exercises: Specific jaw exercises tailored by a physiotherapist can help improve the jaw’s range of motion, stability, and function. These exercises may involve gentle stretches, resistance training, and neuromuscular retraining to encourage correct movement patterns.
  5. Stress Management: Stress and anxiety can exacerbate TMJ pain. Physiotherapists can teach relaxation techniques, such as diaphragmatic breathing and mindfulness, to reduce stress levels and improve overall well-being.
  6. Education and Lifestyle Modifications: Physiotherapists educate patients about lifestyle changes, such as avoiding excessive gum chewing, hard foods, or habits like clenching or grinding teeth, that can aggravate TMJ pain.

Scientific Support:

Numerous studies have highlighted the effectiveness of physiotherapy in managing TMJ pain dysfunction. A study published in the Journal of Oral Rehabilitation (2017) demonstrated that manual therapy combined with exercise significantly reduced pain and improved jaw function in patients with TMD. Another study in the Journal of Back and Musculoskeletal Rehabilitation (2019) found that physiotherapy interventions effectively improved TMJ function and reduced pain in patients with chronic TMD.

If you are experiencing symptoms of TMJ pain dysfunction, seeking help from a qualified physiotherapist can offer significant relief and improve your overall quality of life. Through personalised assessments, targeted interventions, and evidence-based techniques, physiotherapists can address the root causes of TMD, alleviate pain, and empower you with the knowledge and tools to manage your condition effectively. Don’t let TMJ pain hold you back – take the first step towards relief by consulting a physiotherapist experienced in treating TMJ dysfunction – like me!

Lexi is based at Monument Tuesday – Thursday and will be happy to help you with your TMJ related issues. We also have TMJ Specialists at Six Physio Finchley Rd and Mansion House.

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