Jaw Pain – Exercises Everyone Must Try!

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Do you get jaw pain, clicking, and popping every time you open your mouth? Does it lead to pain every time you eat, brush your teeth, and yawn? These are clear signs of a temporomandibular disorder (TMD)TMD is classified as dysfunction of the temporomandibular joint (TMJ), your jaw, or your muscles of mastication (the muscles you use to chew). TMD affects 33% of Americans, but lucky for you, physical therapy is an excellent form of treatment for these conditions.

Common Signs and Symptoms of TMD: restricted mouth opening, chronic facial pain, headaches, and clicking and crackling at the jaw. Causes of TMD include hyperactivity of the muscles of mastication, stress, anxiety, trauma, sleeping disorders, and even dysfunction of the cervical spine (your neck). But how does the TMJ and your neck relate? The trigeminal nerve, a nerve that innervates your upper cervical spine, also innervates your muscles of mastication. This means that a tight and immobile neck can be contributing to TMD symptoms. All of these signs and symptoms can truly affect activities of daily living and cause unnecessary stress to our lives.

TMD has two main classifications:
1) Myofascial Temporomandibular Disorders (MTMD)
2) Disc Displacement

The first classification, MTMD, pertains to pain in your jaw originating from your chewing muscles: masseters, pterygoids, and temporalis. MTMD can result in pain every time you eat or open and close your mouth.

The second classification, Disc Displacement, pertains to disorders of an articular disc that glides forward and backward between your TMJ as you open and close your mouth. Disc displacement can lead to that clicking and popping when opening and closing your mouth.

So how do you know what kind of TMD you have? Below are a few quick tests you can perform at home with just two popsicle sticks! It is also important to note that both muscles and joints can be impaired in cases of jaw pain.


Self Assessment A: Lateral Deviation Test

1) Look in front of a mirror
2) Open Jaw as wide as you can
3) Look between your two front teeth (central incisors)
  • Does your jaw deviate to the Left or Right?
    • If yes, this is likely more of a joint/disc dysfunction
    • If no, this is more likely a muscular issue
  • Does your jaw click and pop?
    • If yes, this is likely more of a joint/disc dysfunction
    • If no, this is more likely a muscular issue

Self Assessments B: Bite Test

1Bite test- chew on two popsicle sticks (along teeth)
  • If biting causes more pain, your chewing muscles (muscle of mastication) could be the issue
2) Bite on one popsicle stick
  • If pain is on the opposite side of the mouth, the TMJ is more likely the issue 

Physical therapy can also provide a more extensive examination of the mouth with specific measurements of mouth opening/closing, jaw deviation, and biomechanics of the TMJ. Once it is determined what type of TMD is present, manual therapy from a physical therapist has been shown to greatly improve TMD symptoms. A physical therapist can help you with body work on those painful muscles of mastication, treating those tight muscles of your neck, improve that forward head posture, and facilitate proper mechanics at the TMJ to improve mouth opening and closing to allow you to eat pain free!


For now, here are 5 Exercises Everyone With Jaw Pain Must Try!



1) Masseter Self Release
Start with your fingers about one inch in front of your ear lobes toward your cheeks. Palpate back and forth like it’s a guitar string. Does it feel tight and tender? If so, you’ve found a great spot! Apply pressure and hold until the discomfort/tenderness starts to subside. Repeat this process 3-4x along the muscle.


2) Medial Pterygoid Release
The medial pterygoid is another muscle that is overactive and can result in jaw pain/limitations. For this release, you will have to enter the mouth and press toward the back of the teeth, just past the molars. Move your fingers about a centimeter toward your cheek and shift your fingers up and down until you feel a taut band of muscle that feels tender to the touch. Apply pressure on the tender point until the pain starts to dissipate and continue moving up and down that area for up to 5 minutes. This can be done once every 2-3 days or as needed to relieve pain. Avoid sharp pain!


3) Chin tucks
Perform 2×15 x 3 second holds at the end of every hour when sitting at work! You should be feeling the muscles under your jaw working to help stabilize your neck! 


4) Upper Trap Stretch
Tight neck muscles that get worse from sitting and using your phone and computer? Dysfunction at the neck has been shown to have direct correlations with jaw pain! Start by holding the bottom of your chair and gently pull at the temple with your other hand to stretch that tight upper trap. Hold 3x30s and can be performed 2-3x per day.


5) Levator Trap Stretch
Another great stretch to perform when sitting to stretch out the back of your neck. Start by tucking your chin to your right armpit and with your right hand gently apply pressure in a 45 degree angle until you feel a stretch to the left side of the back of your neck. Repeat on the opposite side! Hold 3x30s and can be performed 2-3x per day

Brian Wilson


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