How Can a Physical Therapist Treat TMJ Pain?
by Dr. Scott Bolding
TMJ pain is a common and often debilitating condition that affects millions of people worldwide. It can cause discomfort, difficulty in opening and closing the mouth, and affect overall quality of life. While there are various treatments available for TMJ pain, many people are unaware of the benefits of physical therapy. In this post, we’ll explore how physical therapy can be a valuable treatment option for TMJ pain and how it can work in collaboration with other medical professionals for the best patient outcomes.
Physical therapy can be an effective treatment option for TMJ pain by addressing the underlying musculoskeletal issues that contribute to the condition. By working collaboratively with other medical professionals, patients can receive comprehensive care that delivers the best outcomes.
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What is Physical Therapy?
Before we can understand how physical therapy treats TMJ pain, we need to know what a physical therapist does. A physical therapist is a doctor who treats issues related to how your body moves. They help manage pain and stiffness in different parts of your body. Physical therapists treat issues in a variety of systems including the
- Neurological systems
- Cardiopulmonary system
- Integumentary system
A physical therapist is especially skilled in dealing with your musculoskeletal system. This system consists of your muscles, tendons, ligaments, and bones. Your TMJ is part of that system. So if you’re experiencing pain or lack of mobility in your jaw joint, a physical therapist can be helpful.
Most of the time you’ll be referred to a physical therapist from another doctor. In the case of TMJ pain, your primary care physician or dentist will decide if a PT is necessary.
Symptoms and Causes of TMJ Pain
Now let’s take a look at some of the symptoms of TMJ disorders, as well as common causes. A physical therapist may be able to help address some of these issues.
TMJ disorders have a variety of symptoms. Of course, pain in the jaw joint itself is the most common symptom. But other parts can be affected as well. The muscles around the joint are easily inflamed when they’re overworked. Headaches and earaches are also common side effects of TMJ pain.
The TMJ is like the other joints in your body. It’s responsible for the movement of your mouth, allowing it to open and close. The anatomy of the jaw joint consists of bones, muscles, tendons, and ligaments. Your jaw joint also has a synovial disc. This disc provides nutrients and lubrication to the joint. Without this disc, your jaw joint wouldn’t be able to move smoothly.
Sometimes the synovial disc slides out of place. When this happens it can be difficult for your joint to get the nutrients it needs. If not corrected, your joint will begin to wear down. In fact, a displaced disc is one of the common causes of severe TMJ pain.
Other common causes of TMJ pain include
A common response to stress is something called bruxism. This is when you clench your jaw and grind your teeth. The pressure caused by bruxism leads to a strain on your jaw joint. Over time, bruxism can cause TMJ pain.
A physical therapist can be brought in to deal with any of these causes.
How Can a Physical Therapist Treat TMJ Pain
As noted above, physical therapists are skilled at treating issues with your musculoskeletal system. Since your TMJ is part of that system, a physical therapist can treat TMJ pain. They can come up with a treatment plan that will help decrease pain and increase mobility in your jaw.
After being referred to the therapist by your doctor, they’ll start with an initial evaluation. This will include discussing your condition and reviewing your medical history. They will also ask you about other treatments, both past and present. Then, they’ll perform a series of tests to establish a baseline for your condition. These tests include:
- Assessment of posture
- Measuring the range of motion of your neck and jaw
- Palpitation of structures around the jaw
- Measuring the strength of your jaw and other muscles
After reviewing this information, the physical therapist will come up with a personalized treatment plan. Your treatment plan may include heat/ice therapy, massage, and a variety of exercises. Ultrasound therapy is another common way physical therapists treat TMJ pain. This kind of therapy involves using a wand to stimulate the tissue beneath the skin. This creates a deep heat that improves mobility.
TMJ mobilization is a very important part of your treatment plan. Mobilization involves your therapist manually applying pressure in specific areas. This helps relieve stiffness in the joint. The most common way your therapist will do this is by placing their thumb or finger in your mouth to apply pressure. It can be uncomfortable at first but after a few sessions, you will start to notice results.
Can Physical Therapy Treat TMJ Pain On Its Own?
Unfortunately, in most cases, physical therapy won’t treat TMJ pain on its own. You’ll need to combine physical therapy with the other treatments you doctor recommends. When it comes to TMJ pain the greatest success is seen when medical professionals work together. Depending on the severity of your condition you may need several experts to help you find complete relief.
Other Treatments for TMJ Pain
Other treatments for TMJ pain depend on the severity of your pain. Mild TMJ pain usually gets better with rest. Over-the-counter pain medication is also helpful.
If your pain doesn’t go away after a few days your doctor may recommend a bite brace or TMJ mouthguard. These devices work in the same way a knee brace does. They provide support for your joint while you sleep. Corticosteroid injections and Botox can also help in relaxing the muscles around your joint.
If these options don’t help or your joint has too much damage, you may need to look into surgery. Types of surgery for TMJ disorders include:
- Open joint surgery
- Total joint replacement
Physical therapy can be combined with these treatment options. Your physical therapist can come alongside your doctor or dentist to support them through your treatment plan. They can provide a variety of therapies to help make these other treatments more effective. Physical therapy is especially beneficial if you’re undergoing surgical treatments for TMJ pain. Ultimately, your doctor or dentist will help you determine if physical therapy is for you after a thorough diagnosis.
Moriarty, A. (2022, October 10). Physical Therapy for TMD/TMJ – Foothills Sports Medicine Physical Therapy. Foothills Sports Medicine Physical Therapy. https://foothillsrehab.com/blog/physical-therapy-for-tmd-tmj/
Pt, B. S. (2022, February 22). An Overview of Physical Therapy for TMJ. Verywell Health. https://www.verywellhealth.com/physical-therapy-for-tmd-4582449
WebMD Editorial Contributors. (2020, December 18). What Is a Physical Therapist? WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/what-is-a-physical-therapist
How a Physical Therapist Treats TMJ
In conclusion, TMJ pain is a challenging condition that can have a significant impact on your quality of life. While there are many treatment options available, physical therapy can be a valuable tool in managing this condition. Physical therapy can improve jaw function, reduce pain, and help prevent further damage to the jaw joint.
But physical therapy alone won’t cure TMJ pain completely. If your TMJ pain is severe, you’ll need a team of medical experts to provide comprehensive treatment.
At PRECiDENT Center for Facial and Dental Medicine, we are committed to helping you find relief. And that’s why we value collaborating with other doctors. When we diagnose your TMJ pain, we’ll take every aspect of the joint into consideration. Then, we’ll come up with a treatment plan that works for you. This may include referring you to a physical therapist. We’ll communicate with your therapist throughout your entire treatment. Our goal is always to make sure you only get the treatment that’s right for you.