In This Issue: TMJ Disorder Syndrome
As more of my clients come to me complaining of “TMJ” –“Temporomandibular Joint” disorder–I have given a lot of thought to the role that Structural Integration plays in helping to alleviate the discomfort associated with this syndrome. I hope that information I’ve included here is useful in helping those of you who experience it, and also those who might yet prevent it!
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The jaw bone really IS connected to the ankle bone!
It’s not news that we live in an impossibly stressful world.
When we are stressed–whether emotionally or physically–our “fight/flight” system kicks in. This innate system is designed to raise our sensory awareness and reaction time in moments of physical danger. Muscles tighten for strength, adrenaline rushes to give us speed, our hearts pump needed blood to our muscles, our digestion slows way down. It’s a gorgeous system…especially when you’re being chased by a tiger.
But we aren’t being chased by tigers any more. In our jobs, in our relationships, in our cars, we clamp down, we clench, and, often, we find ourselves unable to let go. Our ‘alarms’ get tripped more for psycho-emotional reasons than for physical ones: The credit card check bounces. We forgot that the deadline is tomorrow. Our sweetie says, “We need to talk.”
The problem is, our “fight/flight” mechanism often gets stuck in the “on” position; in a chronic alarm state initiated by the sympathetic autonomic nervous system, which involves, among other things, the clenching of the jaw muscles.
When danger is perceived, our jaw muscles automatically clench to protect the vulnerable jaw joint, the cervical spine and skull. When danger passes, it should follow that we would soon relax, but when stress or pain levels are high, our jaws often remain fixed in this chronically tight pattern. Jaw clenching, tension, headaches or grinding of the teeth are often the result.
Many of my clients suffer from jaw pain and headaches. We use our jaws more than 5,000 times a day to talk, eat and swallow. It’s one of the hardest working joints in our bodies.
“TMJ” stands for “temporomandibular joint.” The TM joints connect the lower jaw to the temporal bone of the skull. They are located immediately in front of the ear on each side of your head. If you stick your fingers into the little depression in front of each ear, then open your jaw, you will feel the movement of your mandible, the lower jaw. Open wider, and you may notice that the mandible moves not only forward, but down. This is the hinge/glide action of the TM joints. You may also notice differences from one side to the other.
TM joints are highly complex joints which open, close, slide forward, backward, and move side to side. The five pairs of muscles which allow for such versatile movement must be in perfect balance in order for the joint to function properly. Within the joints themselves are cartilaginous discs which allows the bones to move without rubbing against each other. A misalignment of the jaw, due to muscle imbalance or disck displacement, can lead to jaw pain, clicking, popping, ringing and/or a stuffy feeling in the ears, such as when you descend in an airplane. Only, for some of us, that clogged feeling in the ears never goes away.
Injury to the jaw, temporomandibular joint, or muscles of the head and neck – such as from a heavy blow or whiplash – can set the stage for TMJ problems. Other possible contributers include:
- Grinding or clenching the teeth, which puts a lot of pressure on the TMJ
- Dislocation of the disc
- Presence of osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis in the TMJ
- invasive dental surgery or orthodonture
- prolonged jaw stress (keeping the jaw open for long periods)
- Postural imbalances
- Uneven bite between upper and lower jaw
- Stress, which can cause a person to tighten facial and jaw muscles or clench the teeth
When clients come to me complaining of pain in their neck and jaw, I look first at their feet. Why? Because, as a Structural Integration practitioner, I understand that lack of support in the feet and ankles can often be the source of imbalance higher up in our bodies. The jaw and the neck are often a place of movement, vulnerability, and thus where tension expresses itself. By improving the base of support for the whole structure, we can address the jaw pain indirectly. Session #7 of the 10-series deals directly with the neck and jaw, including the intra-oral muscles involved in jaw movement.
As with anything, change begins with awareness. Think about how you are sitting when in front of your computer. (Hint: the fellow in the photo above is NOT your role model!) Is your neck supported by your sitbones of your pelvis? Is your work directly in front of you, at eye level, or do you have to look down or up, forcing your head forward and out of alignment with your neck, in order to see? Do your glasses fit properly on your face (remember last month’s newsletter?)
It might be necessary to consult a TMJ specialist to determine the structural and behavioral issues contributing to your symptoms. Aside from Structural Integration, other approaches to deal with TMJ disorder may include: hypnosis, acupuncture, chiropractic, myofascial trigger point injection, Alexander Technique, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication, and biofeedback.