Stubborn TMJ Pain? Try Trigger Point Massage and Jaw Exercises

4 simple ways to find the relief you need

Man suffering from jaw pain or TMJ

It’s been a jaw-clenching, teeth-grinding kind of week. (When isn’t it that kind of week?) And now, you have excruciating jaw pain. Ibuprofen? Might as well put a bandage on your jaw for all the help it’s doing.   

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So how do you spell jaw pain relief? M-A-S-S-A-G-E.

TMD: What a pain in the … temporomandibular joint

Many factors contribute to what was once called “lockjaw,” a disorder of the temporomandibular joint (TMJ) that causes:

  • Jaw pain or tenderness, often while chewing.
  • Headache or facial pain.
  • Earache or ringing in the ears.
  • Difficulty opening or closing the mouth (hence the term, “lockjaw”).

There are different causes of temporomandibular disorders (TMD), including arthritis or a jaw injury. But if TMD is related to tightness and imbalance in the TMJ muscles because of clenching, a professional jaw massage might be what the doctor ordered.

“I’ve found manipulation by a professional, plus jaw exercises, to be highly effective,” says chiropractor Andrew Bang, DC. “When painkillers and bite guards don’t cut it, these types of manual therapy are a good next step.”

TMJ trigger point massage

Trigger points are hyper-tensed muscles (aka muscle knots) that cause jaw aches and pains. “When it comes to TMD, we can blame the pain on the masseter muscle, which covers the jaw over your teeth,” says Dr. Bang.

“The masseter muscle is used for chewing and jaw clenching. Muscle overuse from teeth grinding and jaw clenching causes the muscles to become tense, inflamed and very painful.”  

But the magic of massage or manual therapy may mend those muscles. It’s best to find a provider who has a comprehensive understanding of the TMJ musculature, such as a:

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  • Chiropractor.
  • Physical therapist.
  • Massage therapist.
  • Osteopathic physician.

When the jaw muscles are overly tight or imbalanced, manual therapy works well to help restore normal muscle tone and balance between the TMJ muscles.

The therapist starts by gently touching the muscle to relax it. Next, they firmly press a thumb or finger into the tissue to identify and apply intense pressure to any trigger points. “The kneading helps to unravel the ropey muscle fibers and bring relief,” says Dr. Bang.

TMJ exercises

To keep the jaw muscles smooth and supple, you can also perform simple jaw exercises at home. Dr. Bang recommends these exercises to stretch, strengthen and relax the jaw muscles:

Exercise #1: Jaw relaxation

How to: While touching your tongue to the roof of your mouth behind the upper front teeth, open and close your mouth. Repeat.

Variation: Place a finger in front of the ear on the TMJ, then use your finger on your chin to open and close the jaw partially or fully.

Exercise #2: Chin tucks

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How to:

  1. Stand tall against a wall.
  2. Pull your chin towards the wall to create a double chin.
  3. Hold for three to five seconds.
  4. Repeat several times.

Exercise #3: Mouth resistance

How to: Create resistance to opening your mouth:

  1. Place your thumb under your chin.
  2. While opening your mouth, apply pressure to your chin with your thumb.
  3. Hold for three to five seconds before closing your mouth.
  4. Do the reverse by squeezing your chin between your fingers to resist the mouth closing.

Exercise #4: Side-to-side, front-to-back jaw movements

How to: It’s not quite the hokey pokey, but you’ll have to think about these a bit. (Turning yourself around is optional.)

  1. Put an object, such as a wooden craft stick between your top and bottom front teeth.
  2. Slowly move your jaw from side to side while clenching the item between your teeth.
  3. Thrust your bottom jaw forward, so the bottom teeth are in front of the top teeth.
  4. Gradually increase the thickness of the object as the exercise gets easier to complete.

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