Jaw joint dysfunction is an often unrecognized cause of headaches, facial pain or earaches. Painful clicking of the joint or decreased opening of the mouth can also signal problems with the jaw joint, properly known as the temporomandibular joint or TMJ. The TMJ is a small hinge joint on either side of the skull that allows opening and closing of the mouth, and chewing.
Dysfunction of this joint is referred to as TMD (temporomandibular dysfunction), and can occur as a result of injury, misalignment of the jaw and/or head and neck posture, arthritis and stress. Stress causes many people to clench or grind their teeth, putting excess forces through the TMJs. Each TMJ has a small disc within it that facilitates normal opening and closing of the mouth. The clicking and locking that some folks with TMD experience are caused by deterioration and shifting of this disc. Several muscles work across the TMJ on each side of our mouth and can also be a source of pain when they are continuously tight due to clenching or misalignment of the joint.
If you think you may have TMD issues, seek the help of a physiotherapist and dentist experienced in assessing and treating this disorder. It may be your own dentist who identifies your clenching and grinding habit. He or she can advise you on measures that they can take to benefit your jaw and teeth.
The goal of physiotherapy is to reduce the pain of TMD and to restore normal movement of the joint. The therapist has many methods to achieve these goals and will choose the optimal tool to create positive changes including alleviation of pain and the restoration of normal opening of the mouth.
TMD is best treated conservatively. A trained and experienced TMD physiotherapist begins by conducting a detailed assessment and then will offer a combination of approaches based on that assessment. The treatments may include manual therapy, heat or ice, exercise, electrical stimulation, behavior changes and education, acupuncture, ultrasound or LASER. You can help to minimize stress on the TMJs by eating softer foods and avoiding gum chewing or extreme opening of the jaw.
A written referral is not required to receive physiotherapy, but many extended health plans require one before they will reimburse the cost of physiotherapy services. It is often to your benefit to have your dentist and/or physician involved in your TMD care, as they can provide additional services that may be necessary for optimal results.