Treating TMJ Issues: you can learn to stop clenching

In every TMJ consultation that I do, I ask about clenching. I consider it to be an important factor that contributes to jaw tension, which I treat with manual therapy.

Clenching is a habit that people do unconsciously, and most of the people who come to me for TMJ relief consultations and sessions clench and/or grind their teeth, which is called bruxism.

How does this habit start?

Common sense tells us that clenching comes from stress. If you clench, do you do it when you’re feeling relaxed and happy? Probably not!

It seems likely to be a response that represses free speech, or perhaps it started that way and then became a habitual response to stress.

People of all ages past infancy do it, even as young as three, I’ve heard anecdotally.

We’ve probably all experienced an authority figure (parent, teacher, boss, partner, etc.) who doesn’t want to hear what we have to say and who has the power to shut us down — unless we are willing to experience the consequences…which could be getting fired, isolation, abuse, punishment, abandonment, or violence.

We still think the thoughts, we still feel the emotions, but now we also have to shut up and hold our feelings/thoughts in, unexpressed. We feel threatened and want to feel safe. This creates even more stress.

We may learn that clenching our teeth keeps us safe by keeping our mouth shut…but at a cost to our own well-being.

(If you want to get better at interpersonal communication, I recommend Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication approach.)

We have to use our jaw muscles to clench, and overuse of these muscles creates the chronic tension in these muscles that so many with jaw issues complain about.

The pressure of clenching can cause teeth to crack and break. The dental solution is to replace broken teeth with crowns or implants. These are expensive procedures requiring a lot of time in the dental chair with your mouth wide open, which is tough on already chronically tense jaw muscles.

So what’s the alternative?

I teach what I call Relaxed Resting Mouth Position, aka RRMP. It’s very simple:

  • Close your lips and breathe through your nose.
  • Keep your teeth slightly apart.
  • Curl your tongue up so that the tip touches your upper palate behind your front teeth.

If you clench, try it now and see what you notice. How does it feel? How might it feel if it became habitual?

What if this could become your new default relaxed resting mouth position?

You can teach yourself to do this when you’re not otherwise using your mouth.

Any time you want to change a habit, first you need to become more conscious of your behavior. Then you need a healthier alternative to replace the unwanted behavior.

Repetition replaces bad habits with good habits. Enough repetition rewires your neurology.

How can I learn RRMP?

The way I teach it in my office (and now online) is to give people a few coffee stir sticks, 5-7 of them.

They can put one between their teeth, either flat or on edge, so their teeth are slightly apart, and then close their lips with their tongue tip on the roof of the mouth. Not hard at all, just to get a feel for RRMP.

I then advise them to place the coffee stir sticks in the places they habituate: for instance, on the bathroom counter, bedside table, kitchen counter, desk, dashboard, coffee table, by the remote.

Online readers, you can go to a coffee shop (buy a drink, please), take a few, and do this yourself.

Be sure to tell the neat freaks in your household to leave them where they are!

Here’s where the change happens!

The most important part of changing this habit is that whenever you spot one of these coffee stir sticks — and they will get your attention because they look like clutter — ask yourself, ”What am I doing with my mouth?”

This makes you more conscious of your clenching habit.

If you find yourself clenching, immediately switch to Relaxed Resting Mouth Position. Tell yourself how much you look forward to this becoming your new default mouth position!

Do this again the next time you notice a coffee stir stick. And the next, and the next, and the next.

No one knows just how many repetitions it will take for RRMP to become your new habit. It may take 5 times a day for 3 weeks, or more, or less.

But with repetition, increasingly you will find that your mouth is already in RRMP when you see a coffee stir stick and notice what you’re doing with your mouth.

When you’re satisfied that RRMP has become your new default mouth position, you can put the coffee stir sticks away.

Why tongue on the roof of the mouth?

This appears to come from Eastern medicine and practices. I haven’t found anything in Western medicine about it.

In Taoist practices, the two most important meridians regulating the flow of energy in the body are located on our midlines.

The conception vessel runs along your midline on the front of your body, and the governing vessel runs along your midline on the back of your body, coming over the top of your head.

These meridians meet when you place your tongue on the roof of your mouth.

This practice connects these meridians, strengthening your energy, balancing yin and yang, resulting in a state of calm alertness.

Tongue tip on the roof of the mouth is used in meditation, qi gong, tai chi, kung fu, 4-7-8 breathing, yoga, and probably more.


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.

Reasons people sought craniosacral biodynamics (spring 2022)

Here are some reasons people have come to me for Craniosacral Biodynamics sessions in the past few months. Most of the time, people had multiple issues going on. I’ve consolidated them into general categories.

You can see that the range is wide.

  • breathing issues
  • muscle tension and/or pain (neck, throat, shoulders, upper back, lower back, chest, jaw, face, hip, glute, calf)
  • muscle twitching
  • migraine, chronic headaches, chronic migraines
  • fatigue, chronic fatigue
  • restlessness
  • nerve energy, nerve damage
  • integration after trauma, recovery from multiple traumas, physical and emotional childhood trauma
  • re-regulation after long COVID, reset after multiple challenges during pandemic
  • sadness, grief
  • emotional upheaval, severe emotional shock after break-up, feeling unsettled from work
  • managing bipolar condition
  • empty feeling at solar plexus, chaotic feeling at solar plexus, engaging personal power instead of hiding
  • insomnia
  • better heart rate variability
  • stress, anxiety, wanting to feel secure and relaxed, anxiety about upcoming presentation
  • auto-immune issues
  • holding heaviness in part of body
  • adjusting to new nightguard
  • wonky atlas, cranium feels unbalanced
  • withdrawal from psychiatric drug while waiting for new one to kick in
  • reset after various health issues
  • addressing a layer of inertia
  • three past untreated concussions

You may be curious how one bodywork modality can work with so many different issues.

The simple reason is that Craniosacral Biodynamics augments your own system’s ability to heal, no matter the cause of dysfunction. Everything in your system has a pattern, and sometimes patterns become unbalanced or strained.

Practitioners trained in Craniosacral Biodynamics can help your system move these patterns toward resolution — if they are ready to change.

We all have multiple strain patterns, and there is always something ready to transform.

How does it work? During a session we both get very quiet and still. You sink into a state of deep relaxation. Some people fall asleep. Others stay awake enough to feel shifts occurring within.

I tune into your system, and with attention and support, it pauses, gathers potency (intelligent energy), and starts reorganizing the patterns that are ready to optimize.

This work continues after you leave my office.

Here’s my list for the winter of 2021-22.

Who can benefit from craniosacral therapy?

Here’s a link to a good basic description of craniosacral therapy from the Cleveland Clinic.

These are conditions it helps with (and there are more, but these are the most common):

  • Chronic pain.
  • Fibromyalgia.
  • Migraine headache.
  • Complex regional pain syndrome.
  • Stress.
  • Anxiety.
  • Fascial adhesions.
  • Multiple sclerosis.
  • Neurodegenerative diseases.
  • Temporo-mandibular joint syndrome (I use an integrative approach).
  • Stroke.
  • Post-concussion syndrome.

(I also treat many who have experienced trauma.)

These are conditions that need a release from a physician before treating:

  • Recent concussion or traumatic brain injury.
  • Cerebral swelling.
  • Structural defects in the cerebellum such as Arnold-Chiari malformation.
  • Brain aneurysm.
  • Blood clots.
  • Any disorder that causes instability of cerebral fluid pressure, flow or build-up.

Reasons people seek Craniosacral Biodynamics (winter 2021-22)

I was curious about the reasons people have sought me out for Craniosacral Biodynamics sessions, so I looked through my intakes for sessions given since December 1, 2021.

It’s now March 29, 2022, so this sample spans nearly four months.

The variety is broad. The range includes working with very specific conditions in the tissues, chronic issues, acute issues, energetic issues, mental and emotional issues, imbalances of all sorts, recovery from medical treatment, recovery from illness, stress, and issues caused by stress.

Adjusting to Invisalign braces

Anxiety

Bell’s Palsy

Chiari malformation

Chronic pain

Depression

Emotional overload

Energetic imbalance

Familial and ancestral imprints

Fatigue, exhaustion, depletion

Feeling compressed energetically

Headaches

Long-haul COVID

Mental stress

Muscle tension

Recharge from cancer treatment

Recovery from surgery

Regular self-care

Relaxation

Strain patterns, habitual tension

Tinnitus

Trauma, PTSD, C-PTSD, childhood abuse, neglect

How Biodynamic CST works for serious health challenges

Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy is in the same family of manual therapies as original osteopathy, cranial osteopathy, and craniosacral therapy. 

Although its roots go back to 1899, the current form began in the 1980s.

Reducing the stress load

Imbalances and strains on our bodies come from stressors of all kinds. Until they dissipate, they maintain a stress load in the system.

The human stress response helps us stay alive in the face of threats. Ideally the system returns to a relaxed state when threats are not present. Overwhelming stress can make this difficult. 

Our systems’ self-healing capabilities activate in states of relaxation, not in states of stress. Chronic and acute stress may remain in place long after onset — until given an alternative. 

Inviting the system to reorganize

A biodynamic craniosacral therapist palpates the flow of cerebrospinal fluid in a patient’s body. This fluid flows rhythmically and is located deep inside the body. A therapist can pick up the motion and read this rhythm anywhere in the body. 

After establishing rapport with a patient and their system, the therapist invites the rhythm to go into a still point — a pause in the rhythm.

A still point may last anywhere from a few seconds to several minutes or even hours while the intelligence within considers how to reorganize toward greater health.

Then the rhythm returns with more balance, ease, and vitality.

Reading the rhythm can also show a therapist where the system is constrained locally, for example in a joint or bone or soft tissue.

The therapist invites these imbalances in the rhythm to pause. As with still points, the patient’s system reorganizes locally toward more balance and ease. 

Sometimes these shifts occur spontaneously during sessions without still points. It’s as if the deep relaxation and gentle touch of the therapist’s hands encourage strains that are ready to release to do so.

Freeing healing resources

Releasing strains reduces the stress load, freeing up even more healing resources in the system to get to work.

Patients who have been living with stress often report feeling more resilient after each session and that regular sessions work cumulatively, accelerating stress reduction and recovery.

In this manner, Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy may be considered healing from the inside out. It works well alongside other health-building practices such as good nutrition, staying hydrated, movement, sleep, meditation, yoga, and other treatments.

What you can expect in a session

After you have checked in with your present physical, emotional, mental, energetic state, you’ll get on the massage table. You’ll remain clothed, minus shoes, belt, and big jewelry.

The therapist will help you feel comfortable, with a bolster, pillows, a blanket, or a table warmer, as preferred. She will invite you to tune into your breath and to let your body weight surrender to gravity, letting the table provide all the support you need.

The therapist will take a little time to prepare herself and then she will place her hands gently on your body and tune in to your subtle rhythms.

She may change positions several times during a session.

You may simply rest and be softly aware of sensations in your body, changes in breathing, and other indicators of transformation.

Sometimes patients are aware of strains releasing. Sometimes the work is so relaxing, patients fall asleep. It’s interesting to hear the patient’s experience.

The therapist will let you know when the session is nearing its end.

Afterwards, it’s always a good to idea to check in again and notice what’s different. After leaving, you may want to take some time to relax and integrate the work.