If you’re suffering from headaches or feeling pain in your jaw, ear or neck, you might be suffering from temporomandibular joint dysfunction, or TMD. For some patients, physical therapy can ease and even cure the problem.
The TMJ is a hinge-like joint located where your jawbone and skull meet. It allows your jaw to move up and down and chew, among other things. Dysfunction in the joint can cause pain, stiffness or lack of mobility, causing you pain during simple tasks like eating or drinking.
“What I tend to see a lot of is people getting tension-type headaches from this,” said Dylan Loertscher, physical therapist at Marshfield Clinic Health System. “In addition to any popping or clicking they may have, they also tend to get some pain that extends up to the head along the hairline, above the ear, as well as having more symptoms right in the cheek itself.”
You might even notice diminished hearing or a fullness in your ear.
Treating the pain
Pain management and control is the first step in treating TMD. That’s where a physical therapist can help.
“We can do massage to loosen up tight muscles that may cause more of those headache symptoms,” Loertscher said. “Tight muscles can also bind up movement and cause stiffness, so we try to treat that first.”
Physical therapists also work with patients to develop controlled mouth and jaw movement. This is particularly helpful for patients who hear a popping or clicking in their jaw. Therapists can provide strategies for stretching muscles and avoiding clenching.
“Our teeth are never really designed to come into contact with each other, and put that added pressure on our muscles,” Loertscher said. “If you think about eating, there’s always something between them.”
Ask for a physical therapy referral
If you’ve visited your dentist or primary care provider and receive a TMD diagnosis, ask if a referral to a physical therapist is right for you. Popping and pain isn’t something you have to live with every day and you may be able to avoid surgery.
“We want to help patients that maybe don’t respond the best to just night splints and are trying to avoid surgical options,” Loertscher said. “We have the time and ability to tailor things to people and that’s where we really shine and are most effective. No two patients are the same. We all are a product of our past experiences and all of that matters.”