Fun fact about the jaw – between your jaw bone and your skull there is a small disc. This disc cushions movement at the joint and allows the joint to move smoothly. Most of the time when you hear or feel a click it is related to this disc. A good rule of thumb is if the clicking doesn’t hurt or limit your movement, and if it doesn’t prevent you from doing anything with your jaw like chewing, yawning, or going to the dentist, it’s probably nothing to worry about!
If there is pain or loss of movement and function physical therapy can help. This disc can become displaced and very irritated in some patients. If you hear a click opening and closing your jaw then your disc has most likely slid forward. PTs can help to improve the mobility of the joint and the strength and control of the surrounding muscles to reduce jaw pain and improve function. In most cases we can make great changes in symptoms allowing patients to chew, yawn, and visit the dentist with ease.
What kind of treatment do you use to help my jaw?
In most cases our therapists will use a wide variety of treatments to help with your jaw pain. Our initial and most important tools to use are manual therapy, exercise, postural training, and treatment to surrounding areas. Manual therapy will consist of mobilization to the muscles and joint of the jaw, the upper neck, and the face. This is used to improve joint mobility, reduce muscle spasm, and improve biomechanics at the joint. We will use exercises to strengthen the stabilizing muscles of the jaw, give you tools to mobilize tight muscles on your own, and retrain normal movement of the jaw. Posture of the jaw and tongue are also trained (yes, your tongue can have an optimal posture!). Finally we work to improve the posture and function of the neck, shoulder blades, and mid back to reduce stress on the joint. Dry needling of the jaw muscles can usually be helpful as well.
Help! My jaw is stuck!
Oh boy! This is never fun. First thing to know is if your jaw is stuck you should see your Dentist or a Maxillofacial Surgeon right away. They can help with immediate medical management and rule out serious problems. They will then usually send you to PT. If there are no serious causes and they don’t send you, they may not know PTs can help! Have them email me.
There are two major ways a jaw can be stuck. The first is called Trismus or a closed lock of the jaw. This often happens after dental procedures and is an involuntary spasm of the muscles of the mouth and face. We will typically stat with a short course of very intensive therapy to help reduce the initial spasm to make sure it lasts as little time as possible. We will also give you a home program to help slowly stretch the muscles and regain the function of the jaw.
The other and sometimes scarier version is often called an open lock of the jaw. In this version of jaw pain the jaw is stuck in an open position, usually due to the disc in the jaw. When this happens we usually recommend also seeing a PT quickly, sometimes the joint can be mobilized by the therapist and immediately reduced back to its normal position. We then work on retraining the muscles so that the disc does not displace again.