From the ages of, oh, 17-24, my jaw was a complete piece of crap. It clicked, it popped, it hurt to open, and damn it hurt to close. Not all the time, of course. It came in waves, and some days would be better than others.
TMJ disorder (often just called TMJ) is a problem with the temporomandibular joint, a very complex place where the jaw bone is connected to the head bone. This is a floaty joint, meant to come a bit out of socket as you open wide, move your jaw side to side, forward and back, etc. As you may have noticed, there’s a disc involved, a little piece of cartilage just like the ones between your vertebrae. Some of you will notice it pop in and out of place, and others will have had a very painful experience with this. Sorry about all that.
Anxiety was definitely involved in my case, no doubt about it. I had several fun, overlapping anxiety disorders that made sure that my jaw got no rest while I slept, and that I felt like crap by the time I needed to wake up. This is a phenomenon known as sleep bruxism, otherwise known as grinding the shit out of your teeth at night. Ever wake up with a sore jaw or wiggly teeth? Have a problem with receding gums? Get frequent headaches in your temples? You’re a prime candidate.
Bruxism is a problem because it involves long periods of intense isometric contraction, which is what you do when you stand up straight and stay that way all day. In other words, you’re treating your jaw clenchers like posture muscles, giving them the super power to stay tight for long periods.
My dear mum told me that my teeth grinding was audible when I was a kid, so I’ve been doing it for a while. I needed a behavioral change, and I got it by way of a bite splint. These are glorified mouth guards, they’re expensive as hell, but (after months of hating having them in my mouth) I stopped waking up with pain. After wearing one for years, and eventually wearing through it, I had made an interesting change in my jaw posture: I allowed my teeth to be parted by a few millimeters as their resting position.
Fixing TMJ will require a behavioral change.
That means catching yourself when you’re clenching (again and again and again), and preventing any unnatural/repetitive jaw movements. My dear friends, I’m afraid this means no more gum, not ever.
We’re trying to train our nervous system, not change the joint. The joint is acting funky because the muscles are yanking on it in ways that it doesn’t like. Over the course of the next few months, it’s your job to let your nervous system know that there’s a new order in town, and that prolonged clenching, wide-open yawning, and constant mastication aren’t part of it.
How to go about it? Well, you may need one of those bite splints. It helped me, though I manage fine without it these days. If you get one, go to your dentist for a proper fitting. The ones you can get at the corner drugstore are glorified chew toys, but without the whimsy.
You need to catch yourself doing weird jaw behaviors. Train yourself to keep your teeth slightly parted. Check your jaw for tightness every time you pass through a doorway (or every time you pee, or close a browser window, or whatever). Don’t yawn wide enough for that disc to pop out. No stuff that involves punishing your jaw (gum, sunflower seeds, Sugar Daddies, ice). Oh, and no testing it every freakin’ hour. Yes, I know that you do it. Yes, you need to stop. Leave the poor thing alone.
Finally, try interfacing with your nervous system directly through massage. There are ways for us to tell the nervous system to calm the hell down, reducing spasm and tone. You know how you want to tone up in the gym? You want the tone in your jaw to reduce, leaving the muscles floppy and pliable. Massage can do this.
I made a little video about just this:
Fun, huh? If you can’t watch video right now, the gist is to gently place your fingertips at your lower jaw, then slowly push skin northward until you reach your scalp. That’s it. Skin pushing, gently, for 2 minutes or so. This is called myofascial release, and you will feel more freedom and less pain after doing it, all because of the nervous system calming down for once in its life. If it hurts, use less pressure.
A temporary reduction in pain is great, but we’re going for long-term. That means implementing a regimen. Start with once a day right before bed. Add another session the next morning if you wake up without unusual soreness, and stay at twice a day for a while. Keep it at no more than three times a day; this shouldn’t become a way of punishing your jaw for its impertinence. Love your poor jaw.
Oh, and ice it when it’s really sore.
Once you’ve played with all this, we’ll work on reducing some of the tension in your neck and upper torso, which will help up here as well. Give it a try, give it some time, and be kind to yourself. Let me know how it goes.