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Published on December 26, 2018

man with jaw pain

How Can Physical Therapy help with TMJ pain?

By Michelle McCormick, PT, Avera Physical Therapy of Watertown

First let’s start with what exactly TMJ stands for. TMJ is short for Temporomandibular Joint. That is a mouthful and you can see why we shorten it to TMJ. Its name describes where it’s located: where your jaw, or mandible, connects to your skull, in the area near your temples, and it’s the joint that allows your mouth to open and close as well chew.

Sometimes people develop pain in this joint on one or both sides and they usually describe it as in the jaw, cheeks, teeth, or inside the opening of the ear. Since these structures are all so close it makes sense why discomfort ends up here as well. The pain can occur with chewing or opening and closing the mouth, and in some cases the joint will even lock and moving your jaw becomes very difficult.

If you develop jaw pain, there are some things you can do right away:

  • Use heat or ice to help with pain and inflammation.
  • Massage the muscles in the cheek to relax them.
  • Visit the dentist to make sure there is nothing wrong with your teeth or bite structure.

I also encourage people to consider physical therapy to help resolve their pain. As a physical therapist, I can look at each side of the TMJ, see how they’re working and feel whether or not the joints are stiff or not moving properly. I can also show you how to do special joint specific stretches to help it.

I will also teach you stretches you can do at home to help restore motion. In some cases, we may use ultrasound, which provides deep heat into the muscles and joints. This can help relax the muscles, increase circulation for healing and reduce pain. The best part is that these techniques often help make the area feel better quickly.

Another consideration is the return of TMJ pain. We don’t want that, so I often help people learn more about mouth movement and jaw-muscle exercises, as well as good posture. Together, these steps can help prevent the return of TMJ pain. If you or a loved one is experiencing jaw pain, don’t wait: ask your dentist or doctor for a physical therapy referral. It’s a great way to get to feeling better faster.

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