When jaw pain bites, see a physical therapist

The temporomandibular joint, or TMJ, is probably not a part of the body you know by name. If you experience pain or hear clicking when you open your mouth or chew, the TMJ is likely at fault.

To locate the TMJ, place your fingers just in front of your ears. Open and close your mouth gently. The joints you feel on both sides are the TMJ and they attach the jaw to the skull. They also work with the surrounding muscles to help you chew and talk. A healthy TMJ moves fluidly and silently; an unhealthy joint makes that clicking or popping sound, creates discomfort in certain postures and causes inflammation that leads to pain or headaches.

TMJ disorders are very common. Most people who experience these issues have a history of clenching or grinding their teeth at night. Arthritis, stress or an injury to your jaw, head or neck can also cause TMJ issues.

Because the problems stem from the movement of the mouth, many people are referred to physical therapy after a dental visit. A physical therapist will do a full evaluation to see what’s contributing to the disorder. The PT will assess not only the joint and surrounding muscles, but will also evaluate joint health and posture.

The posture of your neck and shoulders has a great impact on the health of the TMJ. A physical therapist will provide postural education, teaching you better alignment during all daily activities. They will also provide exercises to strengthen muscles to support proper posture and stretch some muscles that may be too stiff or tight.

TMJ disorders may also be stress-induced. Clenching your jaw or grinding your teeth is often a response to stressful situations. Physical therapists can give you stress management techniques and provide behavior education to help you relax and reduce the strain on the TMJ and surrounding muscles.

TMJ disorders are similar to other musculoskeletal disorders in the body, and physical therapists are musculoskeletal experts. A physical therapist can help you ease your joint pain, regain normal range of motion, build strength and reduce tension in involved muscles.


Suffering from jaw pain? The Des Moines University Physical Therapy Clinic can help. Call 515-271-1717 to schedule an appointment.

Tracy Porter, D.P.T.

Tracy Porter is a physical therapist and assistant director of clinical education for the Doctor of Physical Therapy program at Des Moines University.

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