Treating TMJ issues: the effects of stress

For decades, the news has cautioned us about the ill effects of stress on our health, longevity, and happiness. But what is stress and how do you know when you are experiencing it? What does it have to do with jaw pain and dysfunction? Most of all, what can you do about it?

Stress is your body’s response to threats, real or imagined. You become alert, focused, and energized, ready for action. It is a physiological response designed to protect you in dangerous situations, to get you away from the danger or to confront it. Something in us is always scanning for danger and ready to respond.

It also gives you the energy to meet life’s challenges, for example, taking a test, interviewing for a job, making an important presentation, having a difficult conversation, scoring a point, winning a game, driving safely. Doing anything difficult where you care about the outcome requires some extra energy and focus.

So stress isn’t inherently bad — but too much stress can damage your health and quality of life. In the fight-or-flight response (sympathetic dominance of the autonomic nervous system), your body releases stress hormones. Your heart rate goes up, your blood pressure rises, your muscles tense, your breathing quickens, and your senses become sharper, all so you can respond to the situation.

We’re designed to respond this way in extraordinary situations, and the rest of the time (which ideally would be most of the time), to live peacefully, nourishing ourselves, cooperating with the group, resting, relaxing, having fun, and enjoying our lives (parasympathetic dominance, or rest-and-digest mode).

Physiologically, the heart rate slows, breathing slows, blood pressure goes down, muscles relax, and attention becomes broader. In this state, your system has more resources for digesting and assimilating your food and repairing damage.

The switch from rest-and-digest to fight-or-flight occurs quickly and automatically, bypassing your conscious mind. You become aware afterwards that your state has changed.

This is a good exercise: How do you know you are experiencing stress? What tips you off? Do you notice a sudden sharp inhalation and muscle tension? (That’s what I notice.) Do you feel your heart pounding? Do you notice that your mind suddenly becomes focused and alert?

Another good exercise: How do you know you’re okay? Is there a kinesthetic signature that lets you know you are relaxed? I feel a peaceful, happy feeling in my chest. What do you notice?

What does stress have to do with jaw pain and dysfunction? Almost every bit of information available about the causes of TMD connects it to stress. Muscle tension is a universal response to stress. The jaw muscles tighten.

Most everyone experiences stress, but not everyone experiences jaw symptoms. No one seems to know why this is. Here are some of my observations and hypotheses.

  • I’ve observed that most people carry way more muscle tension from stress in their upper bodies, in the upper back, shoulders, neck, jaw, and/or face. For some, all of those places get tense. For others, only one or two get tense.
  • The jaw is the only part involved in chewing and talking. Chewing doesn’t have any associations with threats or danger that I can think of. If the food tastes good and is safe and your teeth and jaws are healthy, chewing is a pleasure.
  • Talking can be dangerous. Some clients have directly related the onset of their jaw symptoms with feeling unsafe about freely expressing themselves about a difficult situation they had with another human being. This could have happened long, long ago, with the unpleasant memory being repressed.
  • Some people have had so much stress and/or trauma in their lives, it’s become chronic. They don’t know how to deeply relax.

Maybe some people are predisposed to have jaw issues. It could be from the strains of their birth and an attempt to reshape the head. It could be a learned strain pattern that runs in their family. It could be from a lack of nutrients that help form healthy jaws (read more about the work of Weston A. Price, DDS, on this topic). I’m sure there are many other possibilities.

I do know that for everyone, help is available. You can release (or get help releasing) the tension in your jaw muscles. You can examine your past, with psychotherapeutic help or by journaling or talking to a trusted friend. You can learn to deeply relax, and it’s a pleasure. And that’s a good topic for tomorrow.

Treating TMJ issues: sleep posture

Are you aware that there is a pillow specially designed for people with TMJ and neck issues? I’ve had one for several years, and I love it. I take it with me when I travel and when I camp. Since I started using it, I’ve never woken up with neck or jaw pain.

It’s the Therapeutica Sleeping pillow, designed by a chiropractor and an ergonomic designer. It’s…different-looking.

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It’s designed for people who sleep on their sides or their back.

I don’t believe there are any pillows designed for stomach sleepers, which is hard on the neck and not great for your organs either.

This pillow comes in five sizes, and you order the size that fits your shoulder width. The proper-sized pillow keeps your head and neck aligned with your spine. Since we spend a third of our lives sleeping, this is important! Good sleep posture makes a difference over time, resulting in fewer neck and jaw issues.

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The indentations on the “wings” relieve pressure on your jaw when side-sleeping. Some users also find it helps with shoulder issues.

The pillow comes with a 5-year warranty not to lose its shape or resilience, and many users have used it long beyond 5 years. I put a king-size pillowcase on my average size pillow, which comes with a zippered case.

At $86.99 for an average size, the Therapeutica Sleeping Pillow is expensive for a pillow. If you average it out over 5 years, though, you pay less than $20 per year for child, petite, average, and large adult sizes, and about $22 for extra large. When you look at it that way, it seems totally reasonable to spend this much on a pillow.

Note the link above is for the average size. Be sure to measure and get the size that’s designed for your shoulder width.

Are you a back sleeper? It’s the recommended sleep position for people with TMD. The back-sleeping-only pillow is called the Travel Pillow, and it comes in three sizes.

On Amazon, read the reviews and the Q&A. Note that not everyone likes this pillow. I believe you should try it for a week before deciding, because it may be very different from what you’ve been sleeping on, and therefore it will take time for your body to adjust. You can and will adjust if you give yourself time.

Your flexible spending account may cover the cost, so check on that if you have one. With Amazon, you can use an app like Honey that watches for price changes and notifies you via email if the price drops within 60 days.

For more on TMD and sleep, check out these sites:

If you’ve found relief from TMJ pain using this or a different pillow, please share in the comments.

Treating TMJ issues: releasing trigger points in your jaw muscles

You have four jaw muscles: the two large ones on the outside of your head (the masseter and temporalis) and the four small ones inside your mouth (two medial pterygoids and two lateral pterygoids).

Any of them can get trigger points.

What is a trigger point? Healthy muscle tissue is made of bundles of fibers that run in the same direction. This tissue is pliable. It stretches or contracts when you move.

Screen Shot 2018-07-12 at 8.36.04 AMA trigger point is a spot where the muscle tissue has lost its pliability. A massage therapist may feel that the fibers in a particular spot have become glued together and hard, creating a small nodule. The tissue feels denser and often rolls under the fingers, compared to healthy muscle tissue.

This causes that band of muscle fibers to become shorter and tighter, restricting full range of movement of the entire muscle.

If you can’t open your mouth wide, or move your jaw easily left and right, forward and back, you may very well have trigger points in your jaw muscles.

Trigger points usually feel tender when you apply pressure to them, and they may also refer pain elsewhere. They may also form “constellations.” This makes them the tricksters of the nervous system.

You can work on your own trigger points to release them. It helps if you’ve received trigger point work from an experienced massage therapist, but you can learn to do it yourself. Even then, you may prefer to have someone else work on them, especially if you have a lot of them in multiple jaw muscles.

Screen Shot 2018-07-12 at 8.08.14 AMMy favorite reference book for working with trigger points is The Trigger Point Therapy Workbook, third edition, by Clair Davies and Amber Davies.

It is written for laypeople to release their own trigger points, but I know many massage therapists who use it as a reference book in their offices.

When I am working on TMJ issues, I notice that many people have trigger points in their masseters, the big external jaw muscles on the sides of your face that run from your cheekbone to the bottom of your jawbone.

Here’s how to find trigger points in your own jaw: using a bit pressure, drag your fingers slowly down the masseter muscle on one side of your face. Do this several times, experimenting with adding pressure, and notice if there are tender spots or “roll-y” spots. Repeat on the other masseter.

If you don’t have masseter trigger points, this usually feels pretty good.

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Source: The Trigger Point Therapy Workbook

If you find trigger points in your masseters (and you can still have TMJ issues without them), there are several ways of treating them.

Some therapists apply a huge amount of pressure. I don’t recommend this because if you have TMJ issues, your jaw is probably already out of alignment, and this could make it worse.

A better way, in my opinion, is to use less pressure. Yes, you can gently release trigger points!

I learned to do this from a local (Austin) massage therapist who is very experienced with trigger point release. She’s worked on me and released many trigger points, teaching me how to do this in the process.

If you have a lot of trigger points, I highly recommend seeing her. She works intra-orally, as do I, but her experience is greater than mine, and she’s amazing at discovering patterns if you have “constellations” of trigger points. She’s going to be more efficient than I can possibly be. She is the queen!

If you are interested in having her work on you, her name is Rose of Sharon, and you can reach her by phone or text at 512-282-1672. Please leave a message with your name and number so she can contact you.

Treating TMJ issues: music to heal the throat chakra

Last week, I shared two links to YouTube recordings of music to heal the throat chakra in this post, in case you missed it.

Today, I want to share more about this. I use the free smart phone app Insight Timer for meditation. It has a timer for silent meditation, chanting, and breathing among other practices, as well as thousands of guided meditations and music for meditation.

In the app, you can click the earphones icon and do a search on “throat” to find guided meditations and music for the throat chakra. I found seven musical meditations, ranging from 4 to 35 minutes in length. The one I’ve listened to most is Throat Chakra Singing Bowls, by Sonic Yogi (29 minutes).

(If you don’t want to use the app, it’s also available on Bandcamp here.)

Which ones do you enjoy?

Sound penetrates our bodies. We’ve probably all felt the vibration in our bodies when we were near a large bell being rung or a gong being struck or loud music being played. Since sound travels in waves, and we are made of waves as well as particles, of course it enters our tissue, fluid, and energy fields and influences us.

The human love of rhythm and music must go way back, long before writing and perhaps before language. Harmonic sound is pleasing. I believe it can harmonize our bodies at a cellular level, creating higher coherence, which means our various systems coordinate with each other better.

Can sound cure cancer? I haven’t heard of that, but I believe it’s possible, probably when it’s very small, before we even know about it.

In my experience, sound can definitely create a sense of inner peace.

In my training and observation, healing takes place when we are relaxed, when our parasympathetic nervous systems (rest and digest) are dominant. If music can get us there, our bodies can work on healing.

To take your self-healing further, while you listen, visualize sky blue or turquoise light surrounding your neck and jaws. Imagine a sense of spaciousness. Deliberately relax the tight muscles with each exhalation.

If you are suffering from TMJ pain and discomfort, I hope you will find some relief from listening to music designed to clear and heal the throat chakra.

Treating TMJ issues: the role of the sphenoid in structural health

The sphenoid bone is one of the most fascinating bones in the body! If you were looking at someone and could see their bones, the sphenoid would be behind their eyes and in front of their ears, with the outermost parts (the greater wings) accessible at the temples, and the lowermost parts (the pterygoid processes) being what your internal jaw muscles attach to.

By the way, the word sphenoid comes from the Greek for wedge-shaped. Its shape has been likened to a moth, a bat, a butterfly, and a wasp.

Here’s a picture of it, as viewed from the front.

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Credit: TeachMeAnatomy

It’s a central cranial bone that does many important things:

  • it connects to your internal jaw muscles
  • muscles involved in swallowing are attached to it
  • it helps form the orbits of your eyes
  • the optic nerves meet, cross, and pass through it
  • your pituitary (master gland) sit on top of it (in a saddle!)
  • it contains two air sinuses, the sphenoidal sinuses, which open into the nasal cavity through the ethmoid bone
  • it has openings for major blood vessels and nerves of the head and neck
  • the tentorium cerebelli, part of the membranous system surrounding the central nervous system down to the sacrum, attaches to the sphenoid

The sphenoid has been called the keystone bone. It touches 12 other cranial bones: two parietals, two temporals, two zygomas, two palatines, frontal, occipital, ethmoid, and vomer.

The place where the sphenoid and occiput meet is called the sphenobasilar joint (SBJ). (The occiput is considered the base of the cranium.) You can see the SBJ in the middle of the image below where the orange and yellow bones meet.

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Credit: TeachMeAnatomy

The alignment of this joint is important. William Sutherland, DO, father of cranial osteopathy, believed that the rest of the skeletal system moves to accommodate the SBJ. If the two bones are not aligned well, it can affect the endocrine, nervous, and cardiovascular systems as well.

Misalignment of the SBJ can obviously affect other cranial bones, which fit closely together. It can contribute to TMJ pain and dysfunction.

When the SBJ is misaligned, it affects the jaw. (Remember, your internal jaw muscles attach to it.) It is also a consideration in migraines, headaches, sinus problems and allergies, pain in the head, neck, and back, scoliosis, issues with eye movements, and problems with behavior, personality, learning, coordination, hormones, and emotions.

This is how the sphenoid bone can affect the structure of the body. Craniosacral therapists pay a lot of attention to the sphenoid and can gently move it into better alignment. I like to end TMJ Relief sessions with a gentle adjustment to the sphenoid and a stillpoint to let the body integrate the new alignment.