image of African American woman examining her jawShare on Pinterest
Getty Images/Catherine Falls Commercial

The occasional headache or pain in the neck may seem like a typical part of everyday life.

Then one day during lunch maybe you notice a clicking sound whenever you chew or you can’t seem to open your mouth as wide.

These are tell-tale signs of TMJ dysfunction (TMJD).

The TMJ (temporomandibular joint) is what connects the mandible (lower jaw) to the skull, just under the ears. The muscles of the TMJ control chewing. Dysfunction or malalignment can affect the neck, shoulders, face, and teeth.

According to one study, TMJD affects 20 to 40% of the adult population. But studies have found massage to be extremely helpful in managing TMJ pain and TMJD symptoms.

Registered massage therapist Hannah Etlin-Stein MSc, RMT in Toronto, Canada has treated many clients diagnosed with TMJD within her practice. She incorporates TMJ work into treatment plans along with teaching her clients self-massage and breathing techniques to continue on their own.

Read on to learn more about TMJ massage and self-massage techniques to help manage symptoms.

2022 research outlines the following as possible symptoms of TMJD:

  • muscular pain when chewing, swallowing, or speaking
  • restricted movement, such as limitations when opening the mouth
  • clicking, popping, and cracking of the jaw
  • dental issues such as misaligned teeth
  • pain in the neck, scalp, and shoulders
  • frequent headaches
  • pain and tenderness at the joint
  • pain, ringing, or itchiness in the ears
  • dizziness

Research from 2021 concludes that conservative manual techniques of physical therapy, including massage, are highly beneficial in relieving TMJD management. There were significant improvements in pain relief and maximal mouth opening.

Etlin-Stein adds “because our jaws do not exist in a vacuum, it is essential to address other areas in the body as well, that could be contributing to TMJ dysfunction. This includes work on the spine, scalp, shoulders, and pelvis to name a few.”

This is why massaging trigger points can bring relief.

Trigger points are tender or sore spots that when pressed, send a sensation elsewhere on the body. Sensations can include pain, tingling, twitching, or itching.

The masseter muscle — a muscle of the jaw located above and below the cheekbone — can have trigger points related to TMJD. Massaging the masseter trigger points can relieve headaches, ear aches, and toothaches.

Some muscles of the neck, such as the suboccipital muscle group (under the back of the skull) and the sternocleidomastoid (those two thick bands of muscles on the front of the neck) may hold TMJ trigger points.

The temporal muscles at the sides of your face, just in front of the ears (think of your temples, where you’d naturally massage if you had a headache) can hold trigger points.

Massaging the upper trapezius, a large band of muscles spanning the neck, upper back, and shoulders can also relieve pressure on the TMJ.

Self-massage can be done using your own hands or specially designed tools. Three types of massage techniques you may use for TMJ are kneading, friction, and stretching.

Kneading (think of kneading dough) is lifting, rolling, and wringing out a muscle between your fingers.

Friction massage is generally used to increase circulation to an area and is usually performed with the pads of the fingers or thumbs. It’s using gentle to moderate pressure as you rub back and forth over an area, usually perpendicular to the muscle fibers.

The stretching, or spreading, technique is a means of elongating a muscle by spreading it out and moving the skin with your fingers, knuckles, or palms.

As wonderful and easily accessible as self-massage is, it can’t compare to treatment from a professional or the act of completely “letting go” while the muscle work is done.

Professional massage therapists may work out of a clinic, studio, or have their own practice.

Etlin-Stein adds “Many of my clients don’t even realize that registered massage therapists (RMT)s are able to help with TMJ complaints, or that doing intra-oral work is part of our scope of practice. A portion of our training is designated to both assessment and treatment of TMJ dysfunction.”

She also points out that the relationship — one of positivity, safety, and trust between therapist and client — is most important due to the vulnerability of TMJ treatment.

When booking an appointment with a massage therapist it’s recommended to ask them about their credentials, experience, and knowledge of TMJ. This type of massage work may not be offered in all states.

A referral from a doctor, physical therapist, or trusted source could prove rewarding.

Here are a few TMJ self-massage exercises you can try on your own.

Consulting with a healthcare professional is highly recommended before embarking on a new exercise or self-massage routine.

As a precursor to performing the self-massage techniques, it’s highly beneficial to connect with your breath in an effort to relax.

Etlin-Stein has found, among her peers and in her own practice, that more clients have been coming in with TMJ issues since the start of the pandemic. The correlation between tension in the body and stress is widely known.

She says “As an RMT, we now understand that many of the benefits of massage therapy are mediated through the nervous system. Teaching relaxation skills can be an effective therapy for TMJ pain and so diaphragmatic breathing is one of many techniques I will often teach clients living with TMJ pain.”

Taking a few minutes daily to focus on breathing in an effort to relax can have a tremendous effect on TMJD.

Masseter cross fiber massage

  1. Make a fist with both hands.
  2. Place the knuckles just under the cheekbone about an inch away from the ear.
  3. Press firmly and move forward making continuous semi-circles.
  4. Continue for 30–60 seconds.
  5. Take a break and repeat the entire motion but with the mouth open.

Suboccipital friction massage

  1. Take the first two fingers or thumb of each hand and place them at the back of the skull.
  2. At the point just above where the skull meets the neck, you’ll feel two prominent bony protrusions.
  3. Take the fingers and firmly press into the muscle and rub back and forth.
  4. Cover as much of that bony protrusion as you like for 30–60 seconds.

Massaging the suboccipital group of muscles relieves tension in the neck and the masseter muscle.

Masseter kneading massage

This is a favorite technique of Etlin-Stein’s and one she recommends to clients.

  1. To find the masseter muscle again (under the cheekbone, about midway from the ear to the mouth), place your hands on your cheeks and clench your jaw. You’ll feel the muscle engage.
  2. Relax the jaw.
  3. Grab that muscle gently at first and pull away from the face and then side to side.
  4. Release and repeat moving up the muscle.

TMJ dysfunction can be very painful, affecting your quality of life.

Symptoms of TMJD can spread beyond the jaw itself causing headaches, neck and shoulder pain, and even affecting the alignment of your teeth.

Working with a professional massage therapist has proven to be effective in alleviating symptoms and pain.

Self-massage is not only an accessible means of self-care — it places you in a position of self-awareness and involvement in your own treatment.

Dig in, and get to work finding relief.