Jaw pain can make resting, sleeping, and/or eating a challenge. Some people have decreased opening in jaw making it difficult to eat or talk. Some have increased pain only with eating hard food, some have pain eating anything and some have no issues eating at all.
Radiating pain and headaches can happen due to the large number of nerves in the jaw region. These nerves spread across the face into the forehead and to the back of the head. When irritated by pain, that pain will travel through these nerves and causes more pain than in just the joint itself.
The jaw joint is called the temporomandibular joint, or TMJ. It is made of the temporal skull bone and the mandible, or lower jaw, creating a joint just forward of the ears. TMJ dysfunction can cause various issues. I have treated many people with TMJ issues from ears that plugged up and wouldn’t clear, to constant headaches to simple pain in the jaw. So what causes TMJ dysfunction?
Sometimes grinding or clenching can cause TMJ pain. Stress can also play a role in jaw pain. Most often two muscles in the joint called pterygoids are tight. This tension pulls on the joint and if tight enough, the joint can articulate forward affecting the mechanics of the jaw.
So besides stress relief, which your physical therapist can help you with, physical therapy can also help directly relieve pain by releasing tension in the interior jaw muscles and along the joint line, sometimes working on the outside of the jaw on the masseter muscle. The masseter is the muscle that you feel on the outside of the jaw that helps you chew. If it gets tight, it will also apply increased pressure into the jaw, making the function of the jaw more difficult. This type of manual therapy works much like on other muscles, relieving tension to get them to relax, often allowing the joint to relax into place if it happens to articulate forward.
After these muscles are relaxed, postural muscles are then strengthened and stretched to help keep the jaw relaxed. A hunched posture puts added stress on all the body, but when the muscles in the neck and shoulders pull on the head, it can continue the pain cycle in the jaw. Working on posture and decreasing tension in all the neck muscles will lead to less pulling on the skull and jaw, and, in turn, less trauma will be placed on the jaw, allowing better healing and decreased pain.
Sometimes additional tools are needed to help relax the jaw and stop clenching or grinding of teeth which your dentist can help with, especially if you are wearing down on your teeth. However, if you wake up suddenly with pain, have trouble eating, or are having constant headaches, call your physical therapist for an assessment to determine if manual release of the jaw will help give you relief.