“Do you grind your teeth at night? Have you been experiencing any jaw pain or headaches? Are you under a lot of stress?” These are all questions my dentist asked me during a routine checkup/cleaning one day. I had recently begun my journey in a doctoral program as a physical therapy student.
During PT school I often endured long days and nights in class and in front of my computer. I was experiencing decreased exercise/motion, increased stress levels, and sitting with poor posture. Before I knew it, I was experiencing temporomandibular pain – typically referred to as TMJ or TMD.
My dentist, unaware of my own pursuit of becoming a physical therapist, sent me home with a night guard and a referral to PT, advising me that it was the best avenue for proper assessment and treatment for my TMD pain.
My physical therapy journey that year, as a PT student myself, included a variety of manual treatments, modalities, corrective exercises, and mindfulness techniques. I was able to experience firsthand how physical therapy could treat TMD. I no longer experience TMJ pain or associated headaches, and I found inspiration to help others recover, so they, too, can live pain-free.
What is Temporomandibular Joint Disorder?
TMD, often referred to as TMJ, is a dysfunction of the jaw joint. The temporomandibular joint, along with several muscles, controls how the jaw moves, allowing it to open and close, shift forward and backward, and side to side. When not functioning properly, pain often occurs, including jaw pain and headaches. The root cause of TMJ or TMD varies, and it must be assessed individually.
While my personal experience was a result of prolonged periods of poor posture combined with increased stress and decreased movement, TMJ/TMD can emerge from other situations. Motor vehicle accidents, sports-related injuries, whiplash injuries, sleep disturbances, joint disorders, and postural-related impairments can all lead to jaw pain and dysfunction.
As experts in musculoskeletal conditions, physical therapists can determine what the underlying cause may be and will work collaboratively with your dentist to correct the condition.
What are the common symptoms of TMD?
For most people, when we think of TMJ we imagine someone whose jaw clicks when they chew or pops when they yawn. The motion of chewing, or even just talking, may cause jaw pain for someone suffering with TMD. The disorder affects an estimated 10-15 percent of the population, yet only 5 percent seek treatment for their pain and discomfort.
Part of the reason for this may be misunderstanding some of the other common symptoms of TMD or TMJ. Besides clicking or popping and jaw pain/soreness/tension, symptoms may include:
How does physical therapy treat TMD?
Our physical therapists understand that everyone’s situation is unique and will take time to listen to and understand your story. Through a thorough discussion and assessment, we will work to discover the root cause of your condition and use that information to create a customized treatment plan tailored to your needs. The ultimate goal of PT is to help you move better, from head to toe – including your jaw and face – and without pain.
A physical therapy assessment will include a thorough exam of your neck, posture, and temporomandibular complex. Therapy will be specific to your situation and may include manual therapy such as soft tissue massage, joint mobilization, and Myofascial release. Other evidence-based treatments include corrective stretching and exercise, dry needling, posture correction, breathing and mindfulness/stress management techniques, and sleep hygiene education.
Your physical therapist will work collaboratively with your dentist and/or other healthcare providers to ensure you receive the best treatment. If you’re unsure whether PT is a good fit for you, our experts are available to consult with you in advance of treatment. Additionally, it is within our scope of practice to refer patients to other medical experts when needed.
Abouelhuda, A. M., Khalifa, A. K., Kim, Y. K., & Hegazy, S. A. (2018). Non-invasive different modalities of treatment for temporomandibular disorders: Review of literature. Journal of the Korean Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons, 44(2), 43–51.
Fisch G, Finke A, Ragonese J, Dugas L, Wrzosek M. Outcomes of physical therapy in patients with temporomandibular disorder: a retrospective review. British Journal of Oral & Maxillofacial Surgery. 2021;59(2):145-150. doi:10.1016/j.bjoms.2020.08.068
Nayak MM, Shyam Krishnan K, D’souza MC, Rao SS, Makwana VR. Thermal ultrasound, manipulation and exercise on pain and mouth opening in Chronic temporomandibular joint disorder. Physiotherapy Research International. 2022;27(2):1-8. Accessed April 18, 2022.
PT Can Help You Recover
If you suspect you may be dealing with TMD, don’t wait. You don’t have to suffer with a lifetime of headaches and jaw or facial pain. Visit your physical therapist today.