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Jaw Pain

What is TMJ? And Other Things You Need To Know About This Sore Spot By Ruth Werner

Do you have TMJ? Let me answer that question: you do. In fact, you have two of them: a left one and a right one. TMJ refers to thetemporomandibular joint. TMD is the label for temporomandibular joint disorders—andthat is the focus of our discussion here.

Estimates suggest that some 10 million people in the United States have symptoms of TMJ disorders—this works out to about 1 in every 8 adults. Women are diagnosed 2–9 times more frequently than men. This is such an extreme discrepancy that some researchers consider estrogen receptors in the jaw to be a possible contributing factor for TMD.

People who live with mood disorders (especially anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder, and depression) or addiction have TMD more often than the general population. And people who have rheumatoid arthritis (RA) are very likely to also have TMD problems: up to 93 percent of people with RA report pain at the jaw.


Here is a short list of possible contributors to jaw pain: • Trauma, for instance, a car accident or blow to the jaw. Trauma

can cause muscle strain or irritation, disk displacement, and

chemical damage to structures related to in ammation. • Jaw use, in the form of bruxism, teeth-clenching, and

repetitive activities like gum chewing or playing the violin. • Occlusion problems. A dysfunctional bite can distort the

force that moves through the joint. Research suggests

this can be one factor but is usually not alone. • Hormones. As stated previously, a link exists between estrogen

levels and TMD risk. Further, the higher a woman’s estrogen

levels, the more pain with TMD she is likely to report. • Psychological factors, especially about stress management, can

be contributors and sustainers of TMJ dysfunction. And having a chronic pain syndrome that interferes with both eating and self-expression is especially challenging. It is easy to see how the stress of dealing with TMD can exacerbate symptoms to the point that jaw pain quickly becomes a whole-body problem.


Pain is the number-one symptom of TMD. That pain can be sharp, dull, jabbing, or electrical. It can be at the jaw, in the teeth, and/or in the eyes, ears, and over the back of the head. It is often exacerbated by activity at the mouth—not just eating, but any kind of vocal expression can elicit pain.

In addition to mouth and facial pain, TMD can cause headaches, and trigger points can form in overactive muscles that stabilize the neck and head.

TMD can lead to vertigo, neck pain, arm and shoulder pain, back pain, and changes in how you walk, all ripples of TMJ dysfunction, as the body tries to compensate for problems at this location.


Many dental professionals enthusiastically recommend massage therapy as an early intervention for TMJ disorders. Many bodywork clients report that craniosacral therapy has helped their TMD.

If someone has chronic TMJ pain, chances are good they have pain elsewhere too, which could affect the shoulder girdle and the position of the pelvis, as well as how the feet hit the ground— they’re all connected.

Let your massage therapist know about your jaw pain, the symptoms associated with it, and how you’ve been managing your pain. Together, develop a treatment plan that will help you move away from the pain caused by this common ailment.

Ruth Werner is a former massage therapist, a writer, and a continuing education provider. She wrote A Massage Therapist’s Guide to Pathology, (available at, now in its sixth edition, which is used in massage schools worldwide.

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