Treating TMJ issues: asymmetries in the rest of the body affect the jaw joints

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 has 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 ask about structural anomalies in my TMJ consultations. I’m interested in whether one foot is flatter than the other, whether there’s a leg length discrepancy or a pelvic tilt or curvature of the spine.

I’ve been known to slide my hands under a client’s arches with them standing to see if their arches are symmetrical.

When a client is lying on my massage table, I can check for a leg length discrepancy.

I can also tune into their cranial rhythm and notice whether there’s asymmetry in the flexion and extension motions at the feet, which indicates asymmetry in the pelvis.

I also feel the space beneath the ears between the bones to see whether the skull is sitting symmetrically atop the spine.

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 a chiropractor realigned my AO joint, which also resolved issues that were all on my left side.)

1 shows the line between the mastoid processes. 2 shows the C1 vertebrae. From the sides, feel the convex bony area beneath your ears and come down up to 1/2″ to feel the ends of the C1 vertebrae. Notice if the space is symmetrical.


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 (or have the client place their fingerpads) over the TMJs right in front of the ears and ask them 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.

One side may move with more ease 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 client’s structure that may affect their TMJs.

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 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 as easily on your left foot as your right, or is one side weaker?

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 self-care 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 asymmetrical), 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 and increase neuroplasticity in the brain. 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
  • Gyrokinesis
  • martial arts
  • dance

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.


What to do if you have jaw issues? I offer a 30-minute in-person TMJ consultation to gather information and evaluate your issues. I also teach clenchers an alternative to clenching and provide known ways to stop grinding, from those who succeeded.

These habits are major contributors to TMJ issues, and you can change them.

If you’re not in Austin, I can do the above as well as help you learn what to ask about when seeking TMJ relief near you. Just let me know if you need a phone or Zoom consultation.

I offer a combination TMJ Consultation plus TMJ Relief session in person in Austin, Texas, and in Taos, NM, in sumemrs. The consultation serves as an intake, so I have a better idea of what your issues are and how we’ll measure progress. Your consultation is free when combined with your first TMJ Relief session. This is a two-hour session.

To be fair, when you’ve had TMJ issues for a long time, or they are acute, you may need multiple sessions to retrain your system to retain the ease and alignment, along with doing your homework to stop clenching or grinding your teeth.

I offer a package of four TMJ Relief sessions for 10 percent off single sessions, best done a week or two apart. These sessions are 90 minutes and integrate various bodywork modalities — including work in your mouth — so that you feel great when you get off the table. They are best done over 4 to 6 weeks.

If you’re really adventurous, you can schedule a 75-minute Self-Treatment for TMJ Issues session on Zoom where we’ll do an intake and I will teach you how to work on releasing the tension patterns that cause problems, including working in your own mouth. You’ll need clean hands and short nails. It’s really not that hard! Learn more about it here.

Free consultation for TMJ issues

I’m please to announce I’ve added a new service. If you have jaw pain or dysfunction and are wondering if I can do anything for you, please schedule a free 30-minute consultation.

A lot of people, including dentists, are not aware that appropriately trained massage therapists can work on relieving your TMJ issues that are due to muscle tension or trauma. 

Screen Shot 2018-05-30 at 8.44.49 PMI’ll ask about your symptoms and your history. I’ll also evaluate your body, including your neck and jaw.

Then we can talk about treatment options. If you’ve never had manual therapy for jaw pain and dysfunction, or if you’ve received it previously from a different practitioner, I’ll be happy to tell you what a typical session is like and the typical progression if you are curious about buying a series of sessions.

Please note: What I find once I start working and how well your system responds are variable with bodywork.

I’ve been doing TMJ Relief sessions since 2013. My teacher was Ryan Hallford of the Craniosacral Resource Center in Southlake, TX. I’ve taken his cranial base/TMJ class twice and been a teaching assistant for it when Christian Current taught. In addition, I’ve studied craniosacral therapy with the Upledger Institute.

Most recently, I studied TMJ Mastery in London, Ontario, with John Corry, a massage therapist and teacher with 26 years of experience working with TMJ issues.

Please let me know if you have any questions, and don’t hesitate to read the testimonials on my What People Are Saying page.