You may not think about your temporomandibular joints (TMJ) much, but you use them a lot. The joints connect your jawbone to your skull. Your TMJ springs into action each time you talk, chew, and swallow.
TMJ disorders may cause mild to debilitating symptoms, such as:
- pain while chewing
- pain in the ear, face, jaw, and neck
- clicking, grating, or popping sounds in the jaw when you open or close your mouth
- locking of the jaw joint
Exercises for TMJ pain relief
It’s unclear exactly how TMJ exercises may relieve pain. They’re thought to help:
- strengthen jaw muscles
- stretch the jaw
- relax the jaw
- increase jaw mobility
- reduce jaw clicking
- promote jaw healing
According to one 2010 study published in the Journal of Dental Research, performing TMJ exercises increases mouth opening range more than using a mouth guard in people with TMJ disc displacement.
These nine exercises from the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) and the Royal Surrey County Hospital may help relieve TMJ pain and improve the movement of your jaw joints. For some exercises, there are frequency recommendations. For exercises where frequency recommendations aren’t available, ask your doctor or dentist for guidance.
1. Relaxed jaw exercise
Rest your tongue gently on the top of your mouth behind your upper front teeth. Allow your teeth to come apart while relaxing your jaw muscles.
2. Goldfish exercises (partial opening)
Place your tongue on the roof of your mouth and one finger in front of your ear where your TMJ is located. Put your middle or pointer finger on your chin. Drop your lower jaw halfway and then close. There should be mild resistance but not pain. A variation of this exercise is to place one finger on each TMJ as you drop your lower jaw halfway and closed again. Do this exercise six times in one set. You should do one set six times daily.
3. Goldfish exercises (full opening)
Keeping your tongue on the roof of your mouth, place one finger on your TMJ and another finger on your chin. Drop your lower jaw completely and back. For a variation of this exercise, place one finger on each TMJ as you completely drop your lower jaw and back. Do this exercise six times to complete one set. You should complete one set six times daily.
4. Chin tucks
With your shoulders back and chest up, pull your chin straight back, creating a “double chin.” Hold for three seconds and repeat 10 times.
5. Resisted opening of the mouth
Place your thumb under your chin. Open your mouth slowly, pushing gently against your chin for resistance. Hold for three to six seconds, and then close your mouth slowly.
6. Resisted closing of the mouth
Squeeze your chin with your index and thumb with one hand. Close your mouth as you place gently pressure on your chin. This will help strengthen your muscles that help you chew.
7. Tongue up
With your tongue touching the roof of your mouth, slowly open and close your mouth.
8. Side-to-side jaw movement
Put a ¼ inch object, such as stacked tongue depressors, between your front teeth, and slowly move your jaw from side to side. As the exercise becomes easier, increase the thickness of the object between your teeth by stacking them one on top of each other.
9. Forward jaw movement
Put a ¼ inch object between your front teeth. Move your bottom jaw forward so your bottom teeth are in front of your top teeth. As the exercise becomes easier, increase the thickness of the object between your teeth.
Other ways to manage your TMJ pain
- mouth guards to prevent teeth grinding and jaw clenching
- mouth guards to help realign your jaw
- warm towels
- ice, no more than 15 minutes per hour and not directly on the skin
- stress-relief techniques to help prevent behaviors that cause jaw tension
- acupuncture to relieve pressure in the affected area
Severe pain caused by damaged joints may require more invasive treatments, such as corticosteroid injections into the TMJ. Surgery may be considered as a last resort. There isn’t any scientific evidence that surgical interventions for TMJ disorders are safe and effective.
TMJ pain may also be managed with simple lifestyle changes. You may wish to:
- eat a soft diet to allow the TMJ to relax
- avoid chewing gum
- avoid biting your nails
- avoid biting your lower lip
- practice good posture
- limit large jaw movements, such as yawning and singing
Tips for relieving pain during dental care
The TMJ Association recommends these tips to reduce pain and help make sure your teeth and gums stay healthy:
- Use a soft-bristle toothbrush or a sonic toothbrush.
- Use a rubber tip stimulator or water flosser if you can’t open your mouth to floss.
- Add an antiseptic mouth rinse to your daily dental care regimen.
- Tell your dental care team if you’re in pain during a dental procedure.
- Apply ice or heat after a dental procedure.
- Talk to your dentist about ways to remove plaque other than flossing. For example, they may suggest wiping your teeth with cotton gauze.
The bottom line
In some cases, TMJ disorders go away on their own. If your symptoms persist, TMJ exercises may help bring pain relief. TMJ exercises shouldn’t be done when you’re in severe pain. The AAFP recommends waiting until your pain is better before starting a TMJ exercise regimen.
When doing TMJ exercises, start slowly. You may feel some pain at first, but it should be tolerable and gradually improve. If the pain isn’t tolerable, consult your doctor. You should do TMJ exercises when you’re relaxed. If you do them when your muscles are tense, it may defeat the purpose.
If your pain worsens after doing TMJ exercises, make an appointment with your doctor.
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