One of the many negative side effects of the pandemic is an increased level of stress. And sometimes that stress can cause a whole host of other issues, like jaw pain from clenching and grinding for instance, which can cause or aggravate temporomandibular joint disorder, also commonly known as TMD, TMJ, or TM. Temporomandibular joint disorder is characterized by pain and limited mobility in the jaw, which may be accompanied by a clicking sound when the mouth is opened, due to misalignment and inflammation in the temporomandibular joint.
As a somewhat longtime sufferer of TMJ, the last six months have been tough personally. Around fall last year, I started to experience chronic, agonizing pain—the result of months spent clenching my jaws from stress and grinding my teeth against each other while I slept at night. The process of discovering the source of my pain started with a cavity scare and ended with a visit to an endodontist to clear doubts of any issues that could potentially require surgical attention. Because of a lack of research and familiarity with the issue, diagnosis can be time- and finance-consuming.
According to the TMJ Association, between 10 to 35 million Americans are plagued by this condition. And because it is an area that has long been neglected and understudied, there is a lack of information about the condition, concrete guidelines for treatment, and research to unearth causes.
The effects of TMJ can be devastating, as there aren’t a lot of effective pain management options outside of prescription painkillers and muscle relaxants. Those are not really sustainable options as gastrointestinal issues and liver damage can result from prolonged use of NSAIDs and acetaminophen, respectively. Muscle relaxants can have a sedative effect, which clashes with adult responsibilities like a full-time job, children, studies, etc.
The race against pain can become all-consuming. I found myself constantly calculating how much time a Tylenol and a couple of ibuprofen could buy me. And how about heat? Would that buy me a bit more time? Or was massage better? I was constantly on the lookout for solutions, rudely awoken most nights by the excruciating pain. I know this all sounds incredibly terrible, but hopefully, you’re not in the same situation and can prevent it from getting as bad or worse with these tips. My pain is worth it if someone else can be saved from the frustration.
The race against pain can become all-consuming. I was constantly calculating how much time a Tylenol could buy me. How about heat? Would that buy me a bit more time?
1. Perform Massage Regularly
In the first few weeks before the reality of what I was dealing with settled in, my vibrating 3D roller was my savior. I would awaken in the wee hours of the morning and work my masseter muscles loose while I waited for the pain relievers to kick in and ease me back to sleep. Sometimes I wonder if a daily face massage habit would have saved me some agony.
The masseter is a thick muscle extending from the cheekbone to the mandible. It plays a major role in our ability to chew, and tension or injury can result in pain or tightness. Massaging the masseter with the fingers or a tool can release tension and increase circulation, resulting in relief.
2. Apply Moist Heat
I never thought a toasty hot water bottle held up to my face would feel as good as sliding into a freshly made-up bed, but that’s what relief can feel like when it comes in the form of moist heat. The warmth is a boon for dull, throbbing aches. Although Ice never did much for me, cold therapy is well-known for soothing inflammation and can numb the pain. It’s worth a try if it eases discomfort.
3. Seek Alternative Therapy
Unless you’re familiar with systems outside of Western medicine, you might not think to try remedies recommended by anyone other than your doctor or dentist. Treatments like acupuncture have been known to alleviate a variety of issues such as insomnia, anxiety, as well as various types of pain. A visit to a chiropractor may provide relief as well. While the injection of botulinum toxin into the forehead, cheek, and temple muscles has worked for some people, it is only experimental and has not been approved by the FDA for that purpose. Mark Burhenne, DDS, co-founder of AskTheDentist recommends the use of Botox for TMJ as a last-ditch effort.
4. Exercise Your Jaw Muscles
- Double Chin: Align your shoulders back with your chest out, then pull your chin directly backward to make a “double chin.” Repeat 8 to 12 times, holding each double chin for about 3 seconds.
- Chin Resist: Open your mouth wide, like a yawn. With your first two fingers, apply pressure to the divot between your bottom lip and chin, towards your neck. Close your mouth, opposing the pressure. For even more muscle relaxation, hold the index finger of your other hand on your TMJ during the exercise.
- Half Moon: Make a fist with your hand. In the space just below your cheekbones, gently drag your knuckles in a half-moon pattern from just in front of your ears until you reach the corners of your lips. Repeat this several times to release the tension on the masseter muscle.
- Marionette: With your tongue firmly on the roof of your mouth, open your jaw widely. You’ll feel tension (but shouldn’t feel additional pain) along the entire TMJ and attached muscles on both sides. Repeat 10 to 15 times, 2 to 3 times a day.
- Thumb Up: Open your mouth as wide as is comfortable. Place one thumb under your chin and close your mouth, while resisting the push with your jaw. Hold in place for several seconds, then release the pressure.
I will definitely be incorporating these into my self-care routine.
5. Consider Hemp For Help
A 2019 study of transdermal cannabidiol application for TMJ found that 70% percent of participants in the treatment group reported a decrease in myofascial pain after the application of CBD oil to the masseter muscle, compared to just 10 percent in the placebo group. Products containing CBD, a nonpsychoactive compound extracted from the marijuana plant, is a safe and drug-free way to reap the anti-inflammatory benefits, as well as an improvement in the way the body processes pain. More research is needed, but in the meantime, it’s not a bad idea to try CBD in one of its many forms, to see if it does the trick for you. Make sure to research the brands you consider for authenticity and effectiveness before you purchase.
Other things you can do to manage TMJ pain and reduce flare-ups are to avoid eating hard, chewy foods too often, try a custom mouth guard for nighttime, and ask your dentist to check for bite misalignment during your next visit. With small lifestyle changes, you may be able to see improvement over time and secure longer periods of relief.