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TMJ: why are we clenching the jaw?

Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) connects the lower jaw (mandible) to the skull (temporal bone), and TMJ syndrome is a disorder that is experienced as a pain on the right or the left side of the jaw, which can also cause the ear pain or a headache.


TMJ syndrome is near the top of the list of the chronic conditions I get to treat as a therapist, and the questions I hear from my TMJ syndrome clients are: ‘where is the TMJ pain coming from?’ and  ‘why am I clenching my jaw?’


In short, TMJ syndrome can be triggered by a number of reasons.


Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is clear on the close relation of the TMJ and the Stomach meridian. So in many cases, also from my own experience as a TCM practitioner, TMG points directly to the underlying digestion problems, and we’re talking not just about digestion of food, but also difficulty ‘digesting’ certain ideas and emotions.


That said, ‘digestion’ is not the only possible underlying issue of what we call TMJ syndrome. It can also manifest as a symptom of an entirely different health condition, and below I’ve listed the most popular ones. In all cases, acupuncture and auriculotherapy can provide relief if the issue is diagnosed correctly.


Muscular Tension


I’d like to mention the muscular tension caused by emotional stress in particular. Our bodies have a number of psychosomatic mechanisms that make us unconsciously tense up certain groups of muscles as a result of exposure to certain triggers.


When I perform massage therapy or Shiatsu, I often notice that people respond to discomfort or pain experienced in deep tissue massage by always tensing up the same part of their body. E.g. the left shoulder shrugs upwards regardless if I’m working on the right shoulder, left calf or a jaw. It’s the automatic response that someone has learned at some point in life, often as a defence mechanism during a traumatic experience.


A degree of body-mind awareness is needed to determine if clenching of the jaw, or TMJ syndrome, takes place as a response to some of the stressful situations in one’s life. Massage, mindfulness, breathwork and meditative ‘body scan’ can help discover these learned psychosomatic patterns and reboot your mind-body response.


Wear and tear


As all of the tissues in the body, TMJ is a subject to the gradual wear and tear. We use the jaw no less than other joints of the body, in fact, it’s one of the body’s ‘busiest’ joints. The muscles of the jaw are responsible for speech, chewing, swallowing and assisting in stabilising the head during the movement or while maintaining the upright position.


The impact, the use and pressure on the TMJ will also depend on your overall posture, when sitting, standing or walking. If the TMJ takes the strain due to the incorrect posture, it will wear more quickly due to the overuse. Strategic exercise and massage can help improve the overall posture and take the pressure off the TMJ, help avoid overuse and TMJ syndrome as a result of overuse.


Inflammation


Rheumatoid arthritis, a chronic inflammation of the joints, is another possible reason for a persistent TMJ pain. But it doesn’t have to be a chronic inflammation or an autoimmune disease in order to cause temporary TMJ syndrome. Sometimes a local inflammation can take place near or inside the TMJ due to compression of any of the facial/ cranial nerves, an ear inflammation, or a growing wisdom tooth.


If there is anything in or near the TMJ that the immune system sees as a ‘danger’, there will be some inflammatory response (it’s body’s way of self-healing) and a degree of discomfort or pain accompanying it. Acupuncture or auriculotherapy can help relieve the symptoms of the inflammation or even address the inflammation itself, if combined with holistically looking into all the possible reasons why the inflammation occurred in the first place in the whole body-mind construct of an individual.


History of Injuries


It’s not just an injury of the jaw itself, or even an injury in the area of the head or neck. Some people find it unbelievable, but even an ankle injury can cause the misalignment of the jaw, or the TMJ. If someone who had an injury to the right ankle couldn’t put any weight on it for a long period of time, their whole skeleto-muscular system had to reorganize and shift the most of the body weight to the left, when walking. To do so, a complex action had to be repetitively performed at every step, by the various groups of muscles, including the muscles of the cranium and, subsequently, the jaw muscles. If some of the muscles ended up overworking as a result, some inflammation or wear and tear might have taken place. In terms of bone alignment, the jaw or cranium muscles would have been pulling on the jaw bone on one side more than the other, causing the misalignment between the upper and the lower jaw. Seeing an osteopath or physiotherapist is advised in this case, to see if your postural habits can be improved.


Bruxism


Bruxism, or teeth grinding, can also cause the TMJ symptom. It often takes place during sleep and there can be numerous reasons for it to happen. Again, I invite you to look into some of the emotional and habitual behavioural factors. Do I go to bed relaxed? If not, can I take 15 minutes to do some breathing exercises and some meditation before sleep? Did I have too much caffeine during the day? Are my dreams active and ‘stressful’? If so, can keeping a dream diary help? Do I keep my bedroom free of electronic devices as much as possible? Is the bedroom cluttered and reminds me of all the cleaning chores I have to do? Sometimes, it takes a bit of organising of some of the daily routines and habits in order to get rid of the issue permanently. In my therapy sessions I use acupuncture to help relieve the symptoms but also invite my clients to look into their emotional, mental and behavioural patterns in order to address the root of an issue.

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