Acupuncture for Temporomandibular Joint (TMJ) Disorder

The temporomandibular joint (TMJ) is the medical term for the paired joints connecting the upper and lower jaws. As one of the most complex joints in the body, it is the source of a variety of disorders, which leads to the common use of this same term (TMJ) to describe pain or other dysfunction of these joints. Often, an effective treatment for TMJ disorder is difficult to achieve, since the condition is related to a variety of aspects of both the mind and body, including dental problems, mental stress, and neuromuscular disorders. Fortunately for those suffering from TMJ syndrome, acupuncture offers one of the most effective alternative medicine treatments, and is able to address many of these aspects of temporomadibular joint disorder (TMD).

Why use Acupuncture to Treat the Temporomandibular Joint (TMJ)?

While there are numerous ways to effectively treat temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorders, acupuncture has been shown in several well-designed studies to be very effective and relatively safe. In a 2007 study, TMJ-related short-term muscle pain was significantly improved in people receiving acupuncture. A recent British study of 70 cases of dental patients receiving acupuncture for TMJ indicated that 85% of patients benefited with an average reduction in pain intensity of 75%. A 2008 study reported high long-term patient satisfaction and improvement of symptoms 18 to 20 years following acupuncture and/or interocclusal appliance (bite plate or splint) therapy.

Acupuncture may be used alone or in conjunction with other treatment approaches. Medications for TMJ disorders can include anti-inflammatories, analgesics (pain killers), muscle relaxants, as well as local injections of corticosteroids in severe cases, maybe recommended by your doctor or dentist. Acupuncture does not interact with these modern medical treatments and can often replace them as therapy without a their risks of side effects.

Unfortunately, pharmaceutical treatments only provide symptomatic relief of temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorders. However, acupuncture can target the root cause of the condition by balancing the mind and body through a network of energy channels called meridians, helping to reset the neuromuscular tension in the jaw. Often TMJ is due to underlying stress held in the jaw or contracted muscles in the jaw and face. Acupuncture can help to both relax these targeted muscles and decrease the overall stress level in the body to relieve TMJ discomfort.

Long-term care of temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder requires important lifestyle changes. Dietary changes may be necessary, depending on any underlying health disharmony that may be identified by the acupuncturist. When teeth grinding or clenching is an issue, wearing a mouth night guard from your dentist can help prevent these actions in sleep. Bite plates can also help correct misalignment. Stress reduction, relaxation techniques, jaw stretching exercises, and modifying chewing habits are all behavioral approaches that have proved effective. Your acupuncturist can help guide you with these lifestyle changes to eliminate your TMJ discomfort.

How Can Acupuncture Help the Temporomandibular Joint (TMJ)?

Acupuncture has proven to be effective at reducing the pain associated with temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder. According to ancient theories of Chinese medicine, acupuncture acts by restoring the balanced flow of Qi, or energy. Modern research has revealed scientific reasons why acupuncture is a successful therapy: in the 1970s, reports appeared in Western medical literature suggesting that one way in which acupuncture reduces pain sensation is through direct stimulation of the nerve, which changes the quality of signaling along nerve cells. Further studies support this idea by demonstrating that acupuncture directly stimulates the release of endorphins and neurotransmitters, among other biological actions. These are naturally occurring substances that help dampen and block pain perception by the brain. Additional research is needed to further study the mechanisms behind acupuncture since many of acupuncture’s effects can still not be explained by either of these medical theories.

Whether by affecting Qi or biological chemicals, what may be more important than the way in which acupuncture works for temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder is simply the evidence that it does work. As a long-standing treatment approach, research has even determined the recommended acupuncture points (ST-6, ST-7, SI-18, GV-20, GB-20, BL-10, and LI-4), frequency (weekly), and duration (30 minutes per session) of acupuncture treatment for TMJ-related problems. Needles may be inserted in the area of the pain, around the ear and the jaw. Or, because of the interconnecting pathways between the meridians, the needles may be inserted near the elbows, knees, and big toe; these distal locations can alter the flow of Qi flowing through the jaw to relieve pain and inflammation as well. Additional acupuncture points are to address other disharmonies detected in the body; correcting the overall flow of energy in the body can help relieve stress and other possible contributing factors to your TMJ disorder.

Generally six acupuncture treatments are recommended, though a mild condition might be treatable in four treatments and chronic conditions may require more. While these treatments do lead to decreased pain, long-term treatment may be necessary to reeducate the muscles surrounding the temporomandibular joint (TMJ), preventing further complications. Complete treatment also necessitates working at the level of the cause, making lifestyle changes including posture, diet, dental work, and decreasing stress.

What is Acupuncture?

Acupuncture originated in China over 3,000 years ago, but only became popular in the West in 1971. A New York Times reporter James Reston, who accompanied President Richard Nixon on his historic trip to China, wrote about how Chinese doctors relieved his post-emergency abdominal surgery pain through acupuncture. Acupuncture is based the principle of correcting and maintaining properly balanced flows of body energy, called Qi (pronounced “chee”). Qi flows along paths in the body called meridians, connecting the surface of the body with the internal organs. Much like the circulatory system of veins and arteries, meridians create a network of pathways branched throughout the body. When Qi flow becomes blocked or slowed, it is believed that insertion of thin needles at specific points along the meridians can restore normal flow. Heat and pressure can also be applied to these points with similar results.

What Causes Temporomandibular Joint (TMJ) Disorder?

Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) symptoms can be the result of an injury to the joint, improper alignment of the jaw and teeth, overuse due to excessive or vigorous chewing, or the action of orthodontics. Habitual clenching or grinding of the teeth, especially while sleeping, can cause or aggravate symptoms. Besides pain and difficulty chewing, jaw symptoms can include decreased range of motion, locking, popping, clicking, or sudden misalignment of the teeth. TMJ can lead to pain that radiates to the face, head, neck, and shoulders. Some chronic sufferers experience headaches, dizziness, earaches, and even difficulty hearing.

References

Bergström I, List T, Magnusson T. A follow-up study of subjective symptoms of temporomandibular disorders in patients who received acupuncture and/or interocclusal appliance therapy 18-20 years earlier. Acta Odontol Scand. 2008 Apr. Vol. 66(2):88-92.

Shen YF, Goddard G. The short-term effects of acupuncture on myofascial pain patients after clenching. Pain Pract. 2007 Sep. Vol. 7(3):256-64.

Rosted P, Bundgaard M, Pedersen AM. The use of acupuncture in the treatment of temporomandibular dysfunction--an audit. Acupunct Med. 2006 Mar. Vol. 24(1):16-22.

Rosted P. Practical recommendations for the use of acupuncture in the treatment of temporomandibular disorders based on the outcome of published controlled studies. Oral Dis. 2001 Mar. Vol. 7(2):109-15.

Levy B, Matsumoto T. Pathophysiology of acupuncture: nervous system transmission. Am Surg. 1975 Jun. Vol. 41(6):378-84.

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