Some people believe I must have had some serious TMJ issues myself to have made it a professional focus, but that is not so.
To be honest, I have not personally experienced the kinds of issues most of my TMJ patients have — the muscle tension and pain and the fatigue that come with it, annoying clicking or popping, the inability to open wide enough to receive dental work, my jaw deviating right or left, teeth not meeting evenly, needing expensive dental work because of bruxism, or feeling hopeless about it with no remedy or end in sight.
(Okay, I did experience a tiny click in my right TMJ when chewing for a few weeks. When I got my head aligned on my spine, it stopped.)
I’ve been fortunate in that way.
I came to TMJ work through a combination of compassion and geekiness and a desire to make a difference for good.
My path started in a craniosacral therapy class in 2013 that focused on intraoral techniques.
My teacher, Ryan Hallford of the Craniosacral Resource Center in Southlake, TX, thoughtfully included some massage techniques for the internal jaw muscles, where much of the pain-causing muscle tension resides.
Most craniosacral therapy teachers don’t teach this…and most people who suffer from TMJ issues are unaware that little jaw muscles inside their mouths contribute to their misery in a big way.
We students practiced on each other, and when that training was over, I felt a new sense of ease and spaciousness around my TMJs.
I was impressed.
When I returned to my private practice, I emailed my massage clients to find someone with jaw pain to practice my new skills on. Deborah volunteered.
She had had jaw pain and tension starting when she was in her 20s, when she began clenching her teeth due to stress. Twenty years later, she was still suffering.
I practiced what I had learned on Deborah, and she said it made a big difference. She came back for more.
That made a big impact on me. Eventually Deborah’s jaw pain was no longer an issue.
I had learned a skill that could make a difference in just one session, relieving the suffering that someone had experienced for two decades. It was far beyond the results I got from doing massage.
Over the following years, I offered TMJ sessions to hundreds, maybe a thousand people. I learned about the variety of problems people experience relating to their jaws: pain, tension, clicking, popping, crunching, inability to open wide, locking, deviating from the midline, teeth not meeting evenly on both sides.
I learned that for most of my clients, the jaw muscles would tend to revert somewhat after one session, anywhere from a few days to a few weeks after a session, and that multiple sessions are usually needed to retrain the stress pattern that the body has been holding into a healthier pattern of ease.
I came to understand that TMJ issues rarely occur by themselves unless due to recent accident or injury. Most people who have TMJ issues also clench and/or grind their teeth. (I learned to teach habit change.)
Most also have neck tension and pain. (My sessions include neck massage.)
Poor posture, structural misalignment, and chronic stress all contribute. (We go over lifestyle practices to create more grace and ease in the consultations, and sessions include craniosacral therapy and Zero Balancing to work on posture, alignment, and stress.)
There are other potential influences including medications, genetics, and neurotransmitters.
There’s a lot we simply don’t know yet. I’d love to see more research.
By the way, have you read the book Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor?
I learned that very few massage therapists work inside the mouth, and that those who do tend to be trained in either craniosacral therapy (as I am) or neuromuscular therapy. Among physical therapists, not many specialize in TMJ work. You have to ask. Training is important.
I was fortunate to study in London, Ontario, with John Corry, a massage therapy instructor with over 20 years of practical experience working with jaw issues and teaching TMJ Mastery.
He worked with Dr. Okeson, author of the TMJ textbook dental schools use (as an elective) and shared some insights about the progression of TMJ disorders. I made a few tweaks to my sessions based on this training.
Offering TMJ Relief sessions satisfies my desires to learn in depth about something, to integrate applicable bodywork and changework skills, and to create sessions that relieve tension and pain and leave my clients feeling relaxed and cared for.