Treating TMJ issues: the relaxing breath

Today I want to complete something I promised, sharing a quick way to relieve stress. This is important since so much TMJ misery is related to stress. Either the pain causes you to feel stressed, or your stress from other reasons creates muscle tension, which creates pain. It can be hard to break that cycle.

Some people have a hard time relaxing. The pressure to perform, to get things done, is on. Maybe they have a lot of energy but haven’t learned or had a chance yet to create time for themselves yet. (Yep, in my 30s.)

Or they’ve gone through a stressful period and it feels like their body forgot how to unwind. (Been there multiple times.)

Perhaps they’ve suffered a trauma that keeps them hypervigilant. (I know that one too well.)

Some psychotherapists specialize in helping trauma victims rebalance their autonomic nervous systems, so they can pendulate between fight-or-flight only when a true threat is present and rest-and-digest when they’re safe (and enjoy its benefits of better digestion, better healing, and inner peace). If this is the case with you, check out Somatic Experiencing therapy.

Others just need a little help to get started relaxing. Massage can help tremendously.

A meditation practice is a commitment to relax while sitting upright every day, with attention on your breath and sensations, observing the activity of your monkey mind with some detachment and humor (or horror!).

In fact, I have been curious for years about how relaxed I can become without falling asleep! It’s what drives me to meditate daily, do 10-day vipassana meditations, float in floatation tanks, and get esoteric acupuncture.

If you’d like to start rebalancing from stress into relaxation on your own, there’s an exercise I recommend called 4-7-8 breathing (the Relaxing Breath). Dr. Andrew Weil, who has been practicing and writing about holistic health and integrative medicine for 30 years, came up with it, although its roots are in yoga.

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The video is 3:18 long. Dr. Weil recommends doing 4 breath cycles at least twice a day for two months to get the benefits.

After a month, you can increase to 8 breath cycles, the maximum.

He recommends slowing the cycle down, with the limiting factor being how long you can comfortably hold your breath.

After practicing this for 4-6 weeks, you can begin to use it when something stressful happens. It’s a great resource for me when another driver does something alarming, but there’s no accident and I am left with the residue of stress in my body. A few of these breaths rebalance me. It can help with cravings and falling asleep.

After 2-3 months, it changes your physiology. It lowers heart rate and blood pressure, improves digestion, and is much more powerful than anti-anxiety drugs.

In essense, you are retraining your nervous system to be more relaxed. In my 7 years of doing bodywork, one day I realized this is what we bodyworkers are doing: retraining your body to be more relaxed and functional.

You may become less stressed from using this technique (yay!) and still benefit from receiving a TMJ Relief session to retrain your jaw muscles into relaxation.

If you’re ready to have that conversation with me, please connect. I’d love to hear from you.

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: what various professions do to help

I’m going to write about what various healing professions do to treat TMJ issues to help you be good consumers and know what to expect in terms of results. I am a massage therapist who specializes in TMJ work, including intra-oral (inside the mouth) work, in which I’ve had special training.

I want to say up front that most massage therapists do not work inside the mouth, which is where the jaw muscles most likely to be causing TMJ pain are located. Most massage therapists have the skills to release tension in the external jaw and neck muscles. Maybe that’s all you need, if your jaw pain isn’t severe and it comes and goes. You will feel better after such sessions.

But if you are really suffering from chronic or severe jaw pain and dysfunction, you probably want a lot more than that. You will greatly benefit from intra-oral work, which takes special training and experience to do effectively.

Do not hesitate to ask whether a therapist you are considering working with is trained in releasing tension in the internal jaw muscles and uses gloves or finger cots.

Whole-body work can also help, when the TMJ pain is related to your posture (for instance, head forward posture).

These are the major results that help with TMJ symptoms, along with the professional training that can provide them:

  • reducing stress (massage therapist, acupuncturist, yoga teacher, meditation teacher)
  • reducing tension in your external jaw muscles (massage therapist)
  • releasing trigger points in your external jaw muscles (any kind of therapist with trigger point release training)
  • releasing your neck tension (massage therapist, physical therapist, chiropractor)
  • getting your pelvis aligned and balanced (massage therapist, physical therapist, chiropractor)
  • preventing your teeth from cracking due to bruxism (dentist)
  • reducing tension in your internal jaw muscles (massage therapist with special training, physical therapist with special training, Rolfer)
  • getting craniosacral therapy to restore alignment in the external cranial bones (craniosacral therapist)
  • getting craniosacral therapy to restore alignment in the internal cranial bones (craniosacral therapist)
  • repairing a torn or perforated articular disk (oral surgeon — get reviews first)
  • getting whole-body therapy to help with alignment and release strain patterns (craniosacral therapist, Rolfer, Zero Balancer, yoga teacher, yoga therapist)

This is a brief and imperfect overview to help you get the results you want, and there are many fine points not mentioned here.

 

Meetup for Austin Relaxation Explorers is Feb. 21 at AOMA

If you are interested in deepening your relaxation abilities, and you live in the Austin, Texas, area, there’s a new meetup designed for people like you. The Austin Relaxation Explorers Meetup meets every month with a different presenter on topics and practices relating to relaxation.

I will be presenting on Tuesday, February 21, at AOMA at Westgate and Western Trails in south Austin, just down the road from Central Market Westgate. Check out the meetup here and view a screenshot below.  Continue reading “Meetup for Austin Relaxation Explorers is Feb. 21 at AOMA”