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Over the last few months, every time I'd lie down on an esthetician's table, they'd bring up TMJ. More specifically, that I had it and needed to start doing something about it. Without wanting to seem uninformed, I would nod, tell them "I know, I really should," and try my best to change the subject.
The fact of the matter, though, is that I was pretty unclear about what TMJ actually was—and why they could tell it was affecting me. First was the obvious conclusion: I grind my teeth. But, then, during a facial with Take Care founder and anatomy, yoga therapy, Ayurveda, and body-mind centering specialist Sadie Adams, she mentioned she could also tell I was afflicted because of the way I "propped" my head on the pillow, rather than relaxing and letting my head sink in.
I knew right then that a lot of confusing things were happening in my body, rather unconsciously, and I needed to get some answers. To finally nail down the details and get to the root of the problem, I researched, talked to Adams, and chatted with L.A.-based injection specialist Lisa Goodman. Keep reading for their answers.
First of All, What Is TMJ?
"TMJ or TMJD refers to the temporomandibular joint or temporomandibular joint disorder/dysfunction, a less than optimal functioning of the joint or a disassociation in the mechanics at or around the articulation of the mandible and temporal bone," explains Adams. In layman's terms, it's jaw tension that resides in the primary joint and muscles overlying the jawbones.
What Are the Causes?
There are a few. "TMJD can be a result of bone deformity, favoring one side while you sleep, or sleeping without consideration of alignment and support," Adams says, noting that it can also from grinding your teeth with a misaligned bite. "There's also favoring one side while chewing (as it can lead to teeth wear and an unbalanced bite)," she adds.
Stress also plays a major role. Stress can trigger excess hormone production and lead to various imbalances, including muscle tension and acne, Adams shares.
How Does It Affect You Physically and Aesthetically?
Put simply, it's degenerative. "TMJD can wear down the teeth, disks, and bones," Adams says. "Excessive contractions in your muscles can lead to accumulated muscle tissue, as well as tightness in the surrounding tissues, leading to poor lymphatic drainage, and sometimes to skin conditions such as acne, rash, and cellulite."
She continues, "Stagnation or blockages in the lymph nodes mitigate filtration, increasing the amount of toxins in your blood. An excess of toxins in these fluids can contribute to dull skin, acne, and distention. TMJ can also contribute to changes in your face as your muscles become disorganized, with some overworking while others atrophy. The natural aesthetic of the face can be altered if teeth shift, if bone loss occurs, or if the bite and jaw are off-balance. Good circulation and coherence in the various layers of tissue is reflected in healthy, glowing skin. While tension in the tissue (which accumulates with intense and repetitive facial gestures) can lead to a dull, wrinkled, and inconsistent aesthetic."
What Are Ways to Remedy the Issue?
1. In the shower…
"When shampooing the scalp, you can spend extra time massaging the muscles in order to drain accumulated fluids around tight areas," notes Adams. "I suggest taking your time and being sensitive. Approach this from a place of wanting to support and cleanse. This allows you to feel what is needed to release tightness and stagnation. Be mindful of alignment while walking, working, and exercising—notice and correct forward head carriage and unnecessary holding in the jaw while engaging in day-to-day activities. This requires attention and commitment but will support the health of the joints."
2. In bed…
"Fully resting the weight of your head on the pillow before falling asleep can be a way to tell your body that it doesn't need to take the stresses of the day into the night. Feel the fluids inside of your head, registering gravity and space," says Adams. "This practice will soften the TMJ and release any perceived tension in the facial muscles and tongue. Self-contentedness leads to happiness and fluid membrane balance. Choosing gratitude and contentment can greatly decrease tension."
As TMJ can manifest due to favoring one side of your face for various activities, try to start sleeping on your back. This will not only help with jaw pain but also with acne since your face isn't pressed against your pillow.
3. During meditation…
"Additionally, meditation and breath awareness are powerful and empowering tools help to dramatically reduce tension and stress. Employ self-care methods that address TMJD and stress levels, as well as lymphatic drainage," says Adams. "Blog.Sonage.com offers easy and powerful ideas for self-supporting rituals. Facial massage has been known to relieve stress and tension, and balance circulation and TMJD. Massage can support clarity in the muscles and circulation of blood, lymph, and plasma."
4. With facial massage…
According to doctors at the Cleveland Clinic, trigger point massage can work wonders for people who struggle with TMJ. Manual therapy can help to relieve pressure in the masseter muscle—which extends from the cheekbone to the lower jaw and is largely responsible for chewing solid foods—and is where TMJ aches and pains rear their head.
Beyond directly alleviating tension in the masseter muscle, massaging your jaw can subsequently relieve tension headaches, earaches, toothaches, and more. The trick to achieving the desired results is to start by massaging your face and working down your neck to the top of your chest.
"Focusing on the sides of the head, the ear, jawline, and down to the collarbones can be helpful in clearing blockages," Adams says. When focusing on each area, research suggests that Swedish massage techniques such as kneading, muscle stripping, finger circles, and trigger point release, work well for TMJ relief. However, they found (and Adams agrees) that trigger point release is most beneficial. To put the method to the test, Adams says to "Ease tight muscles in the jaw by sitting with your elbows resting on your knees and your cheekbones resting on the heels of your hands. Then, let your jaw open toward the earth. As much as possible, feeling the disk at the TMJ moving forward and down while opening the mouth, and then register the space around the disk inside the joint."
While exploring facial massage, you may want to use an oil, balm, or cream to provide ease of movement. The conductors of the aforementioned research note, however, that while these products can be beneficial for relieving stress and anxiety which can ultimately lower bodily tension, they don't necessarily relieve TMJ on their own.
Nevertheless, if you choose to use a product to help with the movement, Adams says to consider that normal massage oil, which works well for the skin on other areas of the body, may be too heavy for the face, certain skin types, and conditions. "Try working with pressure points without oil or use a high-quality facial serum with a good slip," she suggests. "Sonage Vitality Nourishing Facial Oil ($48) is an antioxidant that is antiseptic, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and anti-aging. It also contains ginkgo biloba leaf and rosemary oil to stimulate circulation, making it a perfect choice to help relieve tension."
5. Opting for Botox…
"I recommend injecting Botox into the masseter muscle," says Lisa Goodman of GoodSkin Los Angeles. "A lot of people think mouth guards help but these only protect against your teeth." Botox works to relieve that jaw tension and pain, she tells us. It can eliminate headaches, teeth grinding, and lock-jaw by relaxing the muscle that unconsciously creates such stress. This, ultimately, will keep your jaw muscles from looking defined and your jaw from seeming wider.
Cleveland Clinic. Stubborn TMJ pain? try trigger point massage and jaw exercises. Updated August 22, 2019.
Pierson MJ. Changes in temporomandibular joint dysfunction symptoms following massage therapy: a case report. Int J Ther Massage Bodywork. 2011;4(4):37-47. doi:10.3822/ijtmb.v4i4.110
Mor N, Tang C, Blitzer A. Temporomandibular myofacial pain treated with botulinum toxin injection. Toxins (Basel). 2015;7(8):2791-2800. doi:10.3390/toxins7082791