There are a lot of reasons why you might have jaw, face, head or neck pain. One of the most common involves the temporomandibular joint or TMJ. This is the hinge that lets your mouth open and close, and you have one on each side of your head. Here’s what a healthy, functioning TM joint looks like:
Suffice it to say, it doesn’t move so smoothly when it’s damaged:
(You can see more videos of the TMJ in action in this post at Know Thy Health.)
There are three main ways in which the TMJ may become damaged or dysfunctional, leading to a condition known as TMD (temporomandibular joint disorder):
- Clenching, grinding and bruxing, often brought on by stress and maintained through sheer habit
- Malocclusion, or the state of the teeth not coming together properly, which may be due to tooth removal, ill-fitting restorations or the rupture of wisdom teeth
- Trauma, such as a blow to the jaw or whiplash, that has thrown the jaw out of alignment.
Additionally, some inflammatory and autoimmune disorders can put stress on the TMJ and adjacent muscle groups, generating pain.
While TMJ pain begins in the jaw and face, it can come to affect the neck and back, too, and can be quite debilitating. For this reason, pain relief is often the first thing people seek. While painkilling drugs may be convenient, they’re not a great long-term solution for many reasons – from potential abuse and addiction to their adding to the body’s toxic burden.
The best long-term solution involves correcting the problems putting stress on the joint – reducing grinding and clenching, for instance, or realigning the teeth or pursuing physical therapy – as well as reducing pain. Fortunately, there are gentle, nontoxic remedies available.
One of the most promising is acupuncture. Just recently, a study was published in the Journal of Orofacial Pain that found “moderate evidence that acupuncture is an effective intervention to reduce symptoms associated with TMD.”
Nineteen reports were systematically reviewed. There was moderate evidence that classical acupuncture had a positive influence beyond those of placebo (three trials, 65 participants); had positive effects similar to those of occlusal splint therapy (three trials, 160 participants); and was more effective for TMD symptoms than physical therapy (four trials, 397 participants), indomethacin plus vitamin B1 (two trials, 85 participants), and a wait-list control (three trials, 138 participants). Only two RCTs [randomized controlled trials] addressed adverse events and reported no serious adverse events.
The authors did note, however, that more studies are needed to see how well acupuncture works over the long haul.
To learn more about jaw, face, neck and back pain and dental conditions – including how dental diagnosis can be made and what types of therapies may be helpful – see my article “Why Your Jaw, Face, Head and Neck Might Hurt – and What We Can Do to Help.”