Massage for a Sore Jaw

How Massage Therapy Can Help Relieve TMJD

How Massage Therapy Can Help Relieve TMJD 

Your jaw hurts. It clicks and pops. You might not be able to open your mouth all the way. It might even temporarily lock up out of the blue. That’s TMJD. Temporomandibular joint dysfunction is a common problem, but many people who experience it don’t recognize what’s causing their symptoms. And if they do, they might not realize that it’s an easily treatable problem. 

Massage therapy is an effective treatment for TMJD symptoms. If you think that you might be suffering from TMJD, keep reading to learn more about the condition and how you can get some relief. 

What are the main symptoms of TMJD? 

  • Jaw tenderness and jaw joint pain 
  • Aching around or in the ear (earache) 
  • Tooth pain 
  • Facial pain 
  • Difficulty opening the mouth wide 
  • Trouble chewing 
  • Pain while chewing 
  • Clicking and popping when opening the jaw, chewing or yawning 
  • Headaches 
  • Stiff, sore neck muscles 
  • Shoulder pain 
  • An uneven or uncomfortable bite 

What causes TMJD? 

The temporomandibular joint is where your lower jaw connects to your skull. Temporomandibular joint dysfunction is a general term for a number of problems affecting that joint and the associated soft tissue. 

One of the major sources of TMJD is psychological stress: the majority of TMJD cases are linked to clenching or grinding the teeth. Another common culprit is poor posture. Slouching and “head-forward posture” are hard on the structures of your jaw. 

TMJD occurs most frequently in women 30–50 years old. During the pandemic, health providers have noted that frequent and prolonged wearing of masks has also had an effect on the number of people being diagnosed with TMJD. 

The lower jaw has rounded ends called condyles. These condyles are responsible for gliding in and out of the joint socket when we move our jawbones (mandible). Similar to other important joints throughout the body, the condyles are covered by cartilage and separated by a small disk to absorb shock. When the cartilage and disks are worn down, the movement of the jaw becomes rougher, resulting in a cracking or crunching sensation, inflammation and pain. 

Other potential causes of temporomandibular joint dysfunction: 

  • Arthritis 
  • Fibromyalgia 
  • Poor jaw alignment caused by missing or loose teeth 
  • Incorrectly fitted dentures 
  • Habits like biting fingernails or frequent gum-chewing 
  • Infections in the jaw 
  • Jaw injuries 
  • Tumors 
  • Sleep apnea (sleep apnea is known to trigger teeth grinding during periods of apnea) 

How is TMJ diagnosed? 

Most people who get an official TMJD diagnosis receive it from their dentist, often during a routine checkup. Dentists don’t just look after your teeth and gums; they’re also trained to recognize issues and abnormalities of the whole mouth and jaw. They can spot problems with your bite, abnormal muscle tone, or evidence that you’ve been grinding your teeth—all of which can point to TMJD. 

Depending on the cause of your symptoms, your dentist might recommend you wear a night guard or refer you to a dental specialist. But a lot of TMJD cases don’t require appliances or complicated dental work. Increasingly, dentists are referring their TMJD patients to massage therapists for treatment. 

But you don’t have to wait until your next teeth cleaning to start feeling better. If you’re suffering from TMJD symptoms, you can make an appointment with an RMT even without a formal diagnosis. Massage therapy is an effective, non-invasive treatment that can help relieve the symptoms of TMJD, and in many cases even address the root causes. (Of course, you should still see your dentist regularly, and always have severe pain checked out by a dentist or physician). 

How does massage help with TMJD? 

If you’ve been suffering through the pain and tension of TMJD for months or even years, a TMJ massage can feel like a miracle. Because the muscles involved are so small and close to the surface, there’s a good chance you’ll notice significant results after just a single treatment.  

In a typical TMJD treatment, your RMT will begin by working on your neck, back, and upper chest. They’ll target the trapezius, rhomboids, levator scapulae, splenius muscles, and suboccipitals. 

Then they will move on to the affected muscles of your face and jaw. When they’re working extra-orally (on the outside of your mouth), your RMT will pay particular attention to the masseter and temporalis muscles. 

Extra-oral massage of the face, neck, and head can be very effective. It’s relaxing, comfortable, and altogether a pleasant experience (even if your therapist finds a few trigger points). 

But if you’re serious about treating your TMJD, we recommend going a little deeper. That’s right: we’re talking about getting massaged inside your mouth. 

Intra-oral massage is not what most people think of when they picture a massage. Lying on your back communicating to your therapist through pre-arranged hand signals as they use a gloved finger to apply gentle targeted pressure to a tiny muscle under your tongue is certainly less relaxing than the average back massage. 

But what it lacks in glamour, intra-oral massage more than makes up in effectiveness. Working on the inside of your mouth allows your RMT to access small but important muscles like the medial and lateral pterygoids. They will apply pressure and make small movements on the inside of your cheeks and at the back of your mouth. 

We won’t lie: having the inside of your mouth massaged is a sensation that takes some getting used to. To help you feel comfortable, your massage therapist will talk you through the treatment before they begin, and you’ll work out a way to communicate. They’ll let you set the pace, and give you plenty of breaks. 

A Quick Tip to Relieve TMJ Discomfort at Home

A good RMT will offer you homecare advice as part of your treatment. This is especially useful for people with TMJD, because there are some really wonderful self-massage techniques you can use between professional treatments.

Here’s one that you can do right now at your desk: 

Working on both sides of your face at the same time, place your thumbs (or your index and middle fingers) in the hollows right under your cheekbone, close to the side of your face. Open your jaw and apply gentle pressure. With your jaw closed (but not clenched!), make little circles along the edge of your cheekbones until you find the spots that feel good. You can also slowly work downwards toward your jawline, making little circles or gently “stripping” along the masseter muscle. Make sure you work down towards your jaw, not up towards your cheekbones! You should feel some pressure and may experience a little bit of tenderness, but if you feel excessive pain or discomfort, stop immediately and contact your doctor or dentist. 

You deserve to feel better!  Give massage therapy a try by visiting one of our student clinics in Edmonton and Calgary. Each appointment includes an assessment, a 60-minute massage from one of our talented and qualified students, and a short homecare consultation—all for only $35. Book online today 

Robin Collum
Author: Robin Collum