Underappreciated and sometimes overused, your jaw muscles are some of the most active muscles in the entire body. Anytime you yawn, speak or eat, these muscles are responsible for the movements your mouth makes. Because of this heavy workload, it is not unusual for the jaw muscles to become overworked and painful. Fortunately, with knowledge of the problem's causes and a few easy exercises, the pain can be improved or resolved in many cases.
Building strength in your mouth and neck and correcting muscular imbalances can help relax the muscles in your jaw.
What Is Temporomandibular Joint Dysfunction?
Temporomandibular joint dysfunction, or TMD, is a group of disorders that affects the jaw muscles, the jaw joints on both sides of the face and the discs that separate the jawbone from the skull itself.
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In many cases, more than one of these areas may be simultaneously impacted. Sometimes referred to as TMJ, temporomandibular joint disorder, this issue is more frequently seen in women than men and can cause issues on one or both sides of the mouth.
What Causes TMD?
The specific causes of TMD are still unclear. While there may be a genetic component, the disorder may also originate from wear and tear in the mouth's joints or from a trauma or injury to the jaw itself. Regularly clenching or grinding your teeth, known as bruxism, may also lead to this condition. In many cases, however, there may not be a specific incident or a known reason for TMD.
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Symptoms of TMD
Because temporomandibular joint dysfunction is actually a cluster of disorders, it can cause a wide variety of symptoms. Pain in the neck, shoulders or facial area can develop, and you may experience soreness or fatigue in the jaw muscles. It may also become difficult for you to open and close your mouth or to chew food. In addition, you may experience popping, grinding or locking with jaw movement, or swelling on the side of your face.
In other cases, headaches, dizziness or ringing in the ears may occur. The pain can also radiate to the teeth or ears and present like a common toothache or earache. In some people, TMD symptoms are temporary, while others experience them chronically over many years.
How Is TMD Diagnosed?
Because many of the symptoms from TMD can also come from other conditions, a comprehensive exam may be necessary. In addition to physically examining your jaw, your doctor or dentist may also order an X-ray to properly look at the bones in your mouth. An MRI or CT scan may be necessary to properly visualize the muscles and structures surrounding the joint.
In some cases, an arthroscopic procedure that inserts a thin wire and a camera into the temporomandibular joint may also be needed so the doctor can see the problem more clearly.
Exercise Your Pain Away
Each case of TMD is unique, so it is important to work with your doctor or dentist to determine the best course of treatment. That said, in many cases exercise can help improve your symptoms.
According to a 2019 review published in the Journal of Oral Rehabilitation, performing specific TMJ exercises can help improve your overall pain and mouth mobility. Try the following exercises to help relieve your TMD symptoms and relax your jaw muscles.
Target Your Deep Flexors
This technique helps activate the deep cervical flexors. Strengthening these muscles, which lie behind your windpipe in the front of your neck, can help reduce TMD pain and improve your mouth's opening motion.
HOW TO DO IT: Lie on your back and look up toward the ceiling. Without lifting your head off the ground, nod or tuck your chin as though you are giving yourself a double chin. Be sure not to shrug your shoulders as you do this. Hold this position for 10 seconds before releasing it, and perform 10 repetitions each day.
Open Wide and Say Ahhhh
In some cases, tightness or weakness in the muscles on one side of the jaw can lead to imbalance or pain. This exercise helps correct this asymmetry and may lessen your pain.
HOW TO DO IT: Stand in front of a mirror and practice opening your mouth without allowing your jaw to deviate to the left or right side. Once you have opened as wide as you can without causing pain, hold it here for a second or two. Then slowly close your mouth while once again ensuring it does not shift to either side as you do so. Complete 15 to 20 repetitions of this technique two to three times each day.
Work on Relaxing
Your masticators are a group of four muscles — the masseter, the temporalis, and the lateral and medial pterygoids — that are responsible for making the chewing motion. Techniques that help these muscles relax can improve your jaw pain, increase the degree of mouth opening and correct muscular imbalances.
HOW TO DO IT: Place the front third of your tongue on the roof of your mouth just behind your teeth. Apply a slight pressure through your tongue and try to maintain the hold as long as you can. Work up to 10 minutes per session, and try to perform the exercise three times per week.
Strengthen the Jaw Muscles
This TMJ exercise helps build strength in the muscles that move the jaw backward and relaxes the muscles that close the jaw.
HOW TO DO IT: Close your mouth so that your top and bottom teeth are lightly touching each other. Place your tongue against the top of your mouth just behind your teeth and slowly run it backward until it reaches the soft portion of your palate. Once you are unable to move it back any further, slowly open your mouth until you feel your tongue start to lose contact with the roof of your mouth.
Hold this position for five seconds before you relax. Continue to repeat the technique for five minutes each day.
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Warnings and Precautions
Should your symptoms fail to improve with these exercises, more advanced treatments, like a mouth guard or surgery may be necessary. Be sure to let your doctor or dentist know if you experience worsening pain, a lump in the jaw, neck or cheek area, numbness or tingling in the mouth, difficulty swallowing or speaking, vocal changes or unexpected weight loss, because these can be indicative of a more serious health issue.
- National Institute of Dental and Craniofascial Research: TMJ (Temporomandibular Joint and Muscle Disorders)
- Mayo Clinic: TMJ Disorders: Symptoms and Causes
- Cleveland Clinic: Temporomandibular Disorders (TMD): Overview
- Mayo Clinic: TMJ Disorders: Diagnosis and Treatment
- Journal of Oral Rehabilitation: Effects of Exercise Therapy on Painful Temporomandibular Disorders
- Journal of Oral Rehabilitation: Effectiveness of Mobilisation of the Upper Cervical Region and Craniocervical Flexor Training on Orofacial Pain, Mandibular Function and Headache in Women with TMD. A Randomised, Controlled Trial
- The Journal of Headache and Pain: Reported Concepts for the Treatment Modalities and Pain Management of Temporomandibular Disorders
- Oxford University Hospitals: TMJ Exercises
- Cancer Treatment Centers of America: Oral Cancer Symptoms