The temporomandibular joint (TMJ) may seem mystifying, but it is like most joints in the body. There are two bones coming together: the temporal portion of your skull and the mandible of your jaw. A joint capsule surrounds this joint and there is even a meniscus between the two bones.
Typical symptoms of dysfunction include pain or clicking in the jaw and can refer pain to other areas of the face. It can even present as a headache. Like other orthopedic injuries, posture plays a significant role in how the TMJ functions, particularly the position of the head as it relates to your neck. The space between your skull and the first two cervical vertebrae is closely related to how the TMJ works. A “forward head posture” diminishes this space and negatively impacts the TMJ’s alignment and function. Specific stretches and manual therapy can increase the space between your skull and vertebrae and improve function.
The TMJ is used with every word we utter, every swallow we take (on average 2-4 times a minute just from saliva!), when we chew, yawn etc. In a typical orthopedic injury, we would prescribe rest to allow healing. In the TMJ, we have to prescribe relative rest to decrease stress on the joint and surrounding tissues. The relative rest position of the TMJ is with lips closed, teeth apart and tongue gently resting on the roof of the mouth.
In an ideal cervical posture, this can happen naturally though not unconsciously. To help decrease stress on the joint avoid chewing tough foods, and when a yawn is necessary, place your tongue on the roof of your mouth to limit opening. Diaphragmatic breathing and other relaxation techniques to avoid clenching can also provide the TMJ relative rest.
A common cause of temporomandibular dysfunction (TMD) is poor mechanics of the joint. When the jaw opens, the TMJ should roll, then slide, much like turning the knob of a door and then opening the door. However, in many cases poor posture and tight musculature can cause the door to open prematurely without turning the knob all the way. Stabilizing the joint with exercises is an essential part of treating TMD. One example is to assume the relative rest position of the TMJ as described above. Using one index finger, gently apply pressure to your lower jaw in different directions, without causing pain or disturbing the relative rest position.
So give your TMJ a rest and yourself some relief.