Jaw pain is rarely entirely in the jaw!
If you were building a tower, and one of the floors wasn’t level, it would affect the floors above it — unless you somehow compensated.
The Leaning Tower of Pisa is kind of like that, only it’s because it settled unevenly on the ground beneath it. As they built it over the years, it would sink, stabilize, sink more…
The structure of the body is like that too — even when standing on level solid ground.
Because the jaw is near the top of the skeleton, imbalances below can affect the alignment and functionality of the temporomandibular joints (TMJs).
The primary cause of most jaw pain is asymmetrical hypertonicity. Thanks, TMJ Mastery teacher John Corry! That means that some of the muscles that affect the jaw are tighter than others.
I include a basic structural evaluation in my free TMJ consultations. It’s pretty cursory. I’m just looking for asymmetries. Here’s how I do it.
The patient stands with their shoes off.
I feel the space under theIr arches and check whether their feet (or one foot) are pronating or supinating.
Checking the points on the tops of the hip bones to see if they’re level comes next.
I ask about scoliosis and pelvic floor issues.
I check their shoulders to see if they’re level.
I look at the patient from each side to see if they have a pelvic tilt toward the front or the back and view their spinal curves.
When they are lying on my massage table, I can check for a leg length discrepancy with their legs flat, and then with knees bent. I can also see whether their feet point up symmetrically, which usually indicates asymmetry in the hip joints.
I also feel the space beneath the ears between the bones to see if it’s symmetrical.
When the skull and spine are out of alignment, it can contribute to multiple dysfunctions, with TMJ issues being one of them. (Ask me — I experienced intermittent right jaw clicking and my face drifting slightly to the left in meditation until my chiropractor realigned my AO joint, which also resolved issues that were all on my left side.)
For more on this, including exercises you can do starting at 5:25, watch this video.
The last part of my evaluation for symmetry is to place the pads of my fingers over the TMJs right in front of the ears and ask my client to open and close repeatedly.
Often one side moves first.
Often one side feels closer to the ear than the other.
Sometimes one side sticks out more than the other.
Try it on yourself. What do you notice?
None of this is super precise. I’m just getting a basic read on asymmetries in the structure of the patient that may affect the jaw.
Have you noticed that you have a dominant side? A side that feels stronger than the other? Most of your issues occurring on one side only?
Have you ever had a foot, ankle, leg, or hip injury? Can you still tell a difference between the injured side and the uninjured one? Can you balance easily on each foot?
How’s your posture? How about your sleep posture?
Also, do you primarily chew on one side of your mouth?
Becoming more symmetrical can be a good long-term project that can pay off with more ease of movement, less discomfort, better balance, injury prevention.
Symmetry is an ideal, like perfection. Most of us are doing the best we can. There’s always going to be some asymmetry in the body (our abdominal organs are asymmetric), but we can definitely address our most dysfunctional areas.
The functional movement screen is a set of 7 movements you do with a trainer, who scores you and can prescribe workouts that strengthen your weaknesses. FMS was developed to identify athletes who were prone to injury before they got injured. It can work for ordinary people too.
Here’s a link to view the screening movements. You can find a trainer near you online.
Practices of non-linear movement can help if done regularly over a long period. These movements work both sides of the body. They increase flexibility and balance and fluidity. And they are fun! Examples:
- yoga, especially alignment-oriented types like Iyengar and Anusara
- qi gong
- tai chi
- martial arts
The type of bodywork that directly addresses asymmetries is called structural bodywork. There are two main schools of training: Rolfing Structural Integration and Anatomy Trains Structural Integration. Neuromuscular therapy also assesses posture and gait pattern and can address imbalances.