Your temporomandibular joints, or TMJ, are the joints on either side of your head that make it possible to open and close your mouth. While the most obvious function of the jaw is for chewing and eating, proper TMJ function also allows for normal speech, swallowing, and yawning. When your TMJ works as it should, there’s usually no occasion to think much about it. However, when your jaw starts to ache and cause trouble, you may really start to notice that simple tasks like chewing your food and yawning become incredibly painful or difficult.
The TMJ connects the mandible, or the lower part of the jaw, with the temporal bone of the skull. The joints of your jaw are arguably two of the most complex in the body. Not only can your TMJ hinge open and closed, but it can also glide from left to right. It is a special type of joint that acts as a hybrid between a simple hinge joint (like your knee) and a ball and socket joint (like your hip or shoulder). To aid with smooth movement, each TMJ has a cartilage articular disc that helps to cushion the load while allowing the jaw to hinge and glide. A network of muscles, ligaments, bones, and nerves must all work together to keep your TMJ feeling good and operating correctly.
What Does a TMJ Disorder Feel Like?
When your jaw isn’t functioning properly, it can result in pain, discomfort, and loss of normal range of motion. TMJ disorders, often abbreviated as TMJD, have much farther-reaching effects than just jaw pain. Signs and symptoms of a TMJ disorder can include:
- Pain and/or tenderness around the jaw joints on either side of the head
- Facial pain and/or swelling
- Tension headaches or migraines
- Neck pain
- Shoulder pain
- Tinnitus (ringing in the ears)
- Pain while chewing, speaking, or yawning
- Locking of the joint or a noticeable difference in your ability to open or close the mouth
- Clicking, grating, or popping sensations when opening or closing the jaw
- Inability to completely open or close your mouth
What’s Causing My TMJ Pain?
The complexity of the TMJ can sometimes make it complicated to figure out why pain and discomfort are present. Typically, there are three origins of TMJ problems:
- Misalignment or erosion of the articular disc
- Arthritis in the joint
- Damage to the joint from a blow or impact to the jaw itself or to the head or neck
A TMJ disorder can be provoked by different circumstances, some of which are unavoidable, and others within our control to try and change. Some of the most common TMJ risk factors include:
- Chronic teeth grinding or clenching
- Stress or anxiety
- Poor posture
- Eating hard-to-chew foods
- Excessive chewing gum use
- Biting your nails
- Cradling the telephone between your shoulder and ear
- Propping your head up on your fist when sitting
- Chewing on your pen
TMJD and Your Neck – What’s the Connection?
People who deal with TMJ disorders will commonly have pain that affects the neck, as well as headaches and pain that wraps around the ear. TMJD sufferers might notice that their jaw pain, neck pain, and even headaches may be present on the same side of the head and face. This is because the jaw, head, and neck are very much connected. The uppermost vertebra in your spine, the atlas, forms a junction between the neck and skull. Your body relies on the atlas remaining in its normal, natural position. For TMJ sufferers, this is relevant for several reasons:
- The position of the atlas vertebra (C1) plays a major role in head position and posture. An atlas misalignment can cause asymmetries in muscle tension that influence jaw function
- An atlas misalignment can also compromise neurological function. Since the atlas protects the brainstem when it is aligned properly, any change from its normal position can begin to cause irritation.
- The muscles that control chewing are controlled by the 5th cranial nerve, the trigeminal nerve, which branches off from the brainstem.
Any of these factors can cause imbalances in the bones, muscles, and nerves that are related to TMJ issues.
Addressing the Underlying Cause of TMJD
Upper cervical chiropractors focus on realigning the head with the neck by correcting misalignments of the atlas. Upper cervical care is a subspecialty of chiropractic that focuses on providing a high level of individualized care. Time is taken to collect detailed information and measurements in order to create the right adjustment for each patient. This attention to detail is what allows upper cervical chiropractors to get positive, lasting results that can address the root cause of TMJD. Many jaw pain sufferers will also find that their associated symptoms of neck pain, headaches, migraines, earaches, and facial pain reduce or disappear as well.
If you’ve tried all of the traditional TMJ treatments, including switching to a soft food diet, anti-inflammatories, muscle relaxants, physical therapy, and an oral splint or mouth guard, then the only logical next step is to consult with an upper cervical chiropractic specialist. Most offer a complimentary consultation in order to get to know more about your particular condition and to explain how upper cervical care can be part of a lasting, natural solution to TMJ pain. For help locating a practitioner in your area, use the search function on our website.