Massage Therapy for TMJ Disorder

TMJ Disorder or Syndrome is a term often used to describe temporomandibular disorders (TMD), which occur as a result of problems with the jaw, jaw joint and surrounding facial muscles that control chewing and moving the jaw. The temporomandibular joint (TMJ) is the hinge joint that connects the lower jaw, or mandible, to the temporal bone of the skull. This bone is located immediately in front of the ear on each side of the head. When healthy, the joints are flexible, allowing the jaw to move smoothly up and down and side to side, also enabling one to talk, chew, and yawn. Muscles attached to and surrounding the jaw joint control the position and movement of the jaw. For the purposes of this article, the term TMD will be used to describe the disorder, and TMJ will be used to describe the actual joint.

People with temporomandibular joint disorder (TMD) experience severe pain and discomfort that can be temporary, or it may last for many years. More women than men experience TMD and this disorder is seen most commonly in people between the ages of 20 and 40.

Massage therapy is a time-honored modality, dating back thousands of years and practiced the world over. It has been proven to help alleviate a variety of medical conditions, including temporomandibular joint disorder (TMD).

What Causes Temporomandibular joint disorder (TMD)?

Asymmetry of the muscles of mastication (chewing), forward head posture, tightness of the back of the neck, and multiple myofascial trigger points can cause or are the result of temporomandibular joint disorder (TMD) problems. Injury to the jaw, temporomandibular joint (TMJ), or muscles of the head and neck – such as from a heavy blow or whiplash – can cause TMD. Also, grinding or clenching the teeth puts a lot of pressure on the TMJ. Additionally, the jaw is a ball and socket joint, and dislocation of the soft cushion or disk between the ball and socket can result in TMD. Those experiencing the wear and tear of osteoarthritis or the inflammation of rheumatoid arthritis in the TMJ can develop temporomandibular joint disorder (TMD). Finally, TMD can result from stress, which can cause a person to tighten facial and jaw muscles or clench the teeth.

What Are the Symptoms of Temporomandibular joint disorder (TMD)?

There are several indicators that one is experiencing temporomandibular joint disorder (TMD), including:

  • Pain or tenderness in the face, jaw joint area, neck and shoulders, and in or around the ear when chewing, speaking, or opening the mouth wide
  • Limited ability to open the mouth very wide
  • Jaws that get "stuck" or "locked" in the open- or closed-mouth position
  • Clicking, popping, or grating sounds in the jaw joint when opening or closing the mouth (which may or may not be accompanied by pain)
  • A tired feeling in the face
  • Difficulty chewing or a sudden uncomfortable bite – as if the upper and lower teeth are not fitting together properly
  • Swelling on the side of the face

Other common symptoms include toothaches, headaches, neck pain, dizziness, as well as earaches and hearing problems.

What Happens at a Massage Therapy Session for Temporomandibular Joint Disorder (TMD)?

In treating temporomandibular joint disorder (TMD), the massage therapist should focus treatment on the reduction of tension in the masticatory (chewing) muscles, eliminating trigger points—the hyperirritable “knots” felt in the muscle that refer pain elsewhere—and releasing tension in the fascia around the jaw area. Fascia is the tough, densely woven connective tissue that surrounds every muscle, bone, nerve, blood vessel and organ of the body, much like shrink-wrap. When treating jaw pain, it is beneficial for a therapist to have experience in the following techniques:

  • Swedish Massage – This is the most common and best-known massage modality. It has a number of benefits; a primary one being that of relaxation. Facilitating relaxation through a full-body Swedish massage can have a major impact in reducing jaw tension, as stress contributes greatly to TMJ disorders.
  • Neuromuscular Therapy – This therapy involves the therapist applying pressure to trigger points in the jaw muscles to help relieve tension and return muscles to a relaxed state.
  • Cranial-Sacral Therapy – This modality focuses on gently working with the spine, the skull and its cranial sutures, diaphragms, and fascia to ease the restrictions of nerve passages, to optimize movement of cranial sacral fluid through the spinal cord, and to restore misaligned bones to their proper position. It has been proven to provide great relief for temporomandibular joint disorder (TMD).
  • Post-Isometric Relaxation – With this technique, the therapist can restore the decreased range of motion that is usually found with TMD disorders through a systematic process of stretching and providing resistance.
  • Acupressure – Using this Traditional Chinese Medicine technique, the therapist massages the meridians, or energy channels, that surround the jaw in order to increase circulation and provide relief for temporomandibular joint disorder (TMD).

What is Massage?

Massage is the manual or mechanical manipulation of the muscles and other soft tissue of the body. The term massage therapy covers a group of practices and techniques. In fact, there are over eighty types of massage therapy. In all of them, therapists press, rub, and otherwise manipulate the muscles and other soft tissues of the body, often varying pressure and movement. Usually the intent is to relax the soft tissues, increase delivery of blood and oxygen to the massaged areas, warm them, and decrease pain.

Is Massage Therapy Safe?

Massage therapy is a proven modality that has existed for thousands of years. It appears to have few serious risks if appropriate cautions are followed. A very small number of serious injuries have been reported, and they appear to have occurred mostly because cautions were not followed or massage treatment was given by a person who was not properly trained. Side effects of massage include temporary pain or discomfort, swelling, or bruising, when working deeply within the muscle tissue.

Additional Resources

Clay Cox, a Certified Advanced Rolfer, provides a thorough overview of TMD.

The Institute of Integrative Healthcare offers a page on relief of TMJ pain with Massage.

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine has a page on Massage Therapy.

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