The temporomandibular joint (TMJ) enables your jaw movements by which you can close and open your mouth. The TMJ disorders can cause pain and discomfort which may go away on its own. However, there are certain ways such as wearing a mouth guard or jaw exercises to help ease the pain and fix the mobility issues that are caused by this condition. In this article, we will go through different jaw exercises and more management tips for your TMJ disorders that may work for you to help decrease your TMJ pain.

What is TMJ disorder?

The temporomandibular joint (TMJ) is a hinge and gliding joint located on each side of your head in front of your ears. It connects your lower jaw to your skull. TMJ disorder, also called TMD, is a condition that results in dysfunction and pain in the jaw joint and jaw muscles.

The causes of TMJ disorders are varied. It may happen due to a jaw injury, arthritis, or the effects of grinding your teeth at night.

TMJ disorders show different symptoms which can be mild or severe, including:

  • Jaw pain and tenderness
  • Pain when chewing or by opening or closing your mouth
  • Jaw clicking or grating sounds when you open or close your mouth
  • Pain in face, ear, neck, and shoulder
  • Headaches     

TMJ exercises and stretches

There are a number of exercises to help improve the function of TMJ. Physical therapies like doing exercises are the first-line treatment for TMJ disorders management. However, you need to consult your dentist first and ask for guidance. For example, you shouldn’t do these exercises if you are in severe pain or if they make your pain worse.

These exercises may involve relaxing techniques and gentle stretching which may help you find relief. The purpose of the TMJ exercises can be to:

  • Reduce pain and speed up jaw healing
  • Strengthen jaw muscles and build up endurance
  • Stretch jaw muscles and soft tissues to increase jaw opening
  • Help improve jaw mobility
  • Prevent clicking of the jaw joint
  • Practice good posture

1-Relaxed jaw exercise

Sometimes, your jaw may feel tense, so you need to loosen up the jaw muscles. Start by placing your tongue gently on the roof of your mouth, just behind your upper front teeth. While helping your jaw muscles to relax, allow your teeth to come apart by gently opening your mouth.

2-Goldfish exercises (partial opening)

Place your tongue on the roof of your mouth and put one of your fingers where the TMJ is located (in front of your ear). Put the pointer or middle finger of another hand on your chin. While maintaining the fingers and the tongue in their position, drop your lower jaw halfway and then close.

You might feel some mild resistance. Repeat the exercise on either left or right TMJ. Do this exercise 6 times in one set and repeat it a total of 6 times daily.

3-Goldfish exercises (full opening)

There is another variation of the goldfish exercise called full opening. It is similar to the partial opening explained above in positioning except that you need to drop your lower jaw completely down and not halfway and then close. Try the 6 sets in a row and complete the 6 times daily, similarly.

4-Resisted opening or closing of the mouth

The goal of this exercise is also to help align the jaw bone and strengthen jaw muscles. There are two variations of this exercise:

Resisted opening of the mouth. Start with your mouth closed and jaw in a neutral position. Hold your thumb under your chin and apply slight pressure as you try to open your mouth. Maintain this position for about 3 to 6 seconds and slowly close your mouth.

Resisted closing of the mouth. This time let your mouth open. Place both of your hands’ thumb fingers under your chin and your index fingers curled up against the chin on the front. While gently pushing your chin and creating mild resistance, close your mouth slowly.

Repeat this exercise to complete a set and do it a few times daily.

5-Chin tucks

With your chest up and shoulders back, pull (tuck) your chin toward back into your neck. You will create a “double chin” look. Hold this for 3 to 5 seconds and then relax. Repeat this exercise for a number of times as directed.

Watch the short video below which shows you how to do chin tuck exercise.

6-Side-to-side jaw movement

Place a clean item such as a pen or tongue depressor about the size of ¼ inch between your front upper and lower teeth. Now slowly move your jaw from side to side. Use a thicker object to make the exercise a little more difficult.

7-Forward jaw movement

Put an ¼ inch item between your front upper and lower teeth. Push your lower jaw forward so that your bottom teeth are in front of your top teeth. Once you find this exercise easy, increase the thickness of the object to make it more challenging.

What are other ways to manage TMJ disorder pain?

Exercises are an affordable and drug-free method to find relief for TMD pain. However, they are not always effective and may not work for every TMJ disorder sufferer.

Luckily, there are various other treatments that your dentist or doctor can suggest to combat TMJ pain and discomfort. You may be in severe pain or need a long-term solution to relieve your pain.

Therefore, your dentist or medical professional may also recommend:

Using a mouth guard

Teeth grinding, displaced jaw joint disc, or misaligned bite can all cause pain and discomfort in your jaw muscles or joints. So, depending on your condition, your dentist can prescribe a custom night guard to prevent teeth grinding or jaw clenching. Or, they may provide you mouth guards or occlusal splints which are specifically designed for TMJ disorders.

Applying heat or ice packs

Sometimes in severe pain, you may require other home methods to help decrease your TMJ pain. Using warm towels or applying ice pack is another non-drug method to relieve the pressure in your jaw muscles. Apply the heat or ice to the discomfort site in a way that doesn’t damage your skin and with intervals.

Physical or behavioral therapies

Doing these simple jaw exercises may not be enough to manage TMD issues most of the time, especially when you have recurrent chronic TMJ pain. This is why you should see a physical therapist, behavioral therapist, or other special therapist for more detailed and additional treatments.

Here are some of these relaxation therapies which help improve jaw function and reduce your TMJ symptoms:

  • Relaxation and stress-relieving techniques like meditation or yoga to calm the mind and reduce jaw muscles tone
  • Biofeedback to develop better control and ease the muscles
  • Acupuncture to decrease muscle tension and pressure

Avoiding activities that could increase your pain

There are a number of simple care and lifestyle changes you can do at home to manage TMJ disorders. You should also avoid things that make TMJ disorders worse or increase your pain.

Here are some self-care tips as part of your TMJ exercises:

  • Choose softer foods that can be chewed without pain
  • Avoid foods that are hard, chewy, and sticky which require wide mouth opening, extreme jaw movements, or biting off
  • Cut foods into smaller pieces
  • Avoid chewing gum
  • Avoid postures and movements that put stress on your jaw such as leaning on chin, habitually clicking the jaw, and wide yawning
  • Make sure your upper and lower teeth are part when at rest. Your teeth should only contact during chewing or swallowing.
  • Never bite fingernails or your lower lip

Tips for pain-free dental care

Along with your home exercise, it is important to take good care of your teeth as well as your jaw joint and muscles. If you have TMJ disorders, you may even have difficulty cleaning your teeth or when having a dental procedure.

Here are some tips to keep your gums and teeth healthy while reducing pain:

  • Brush your teeth with a small soft-bristled toothbrush. Use an electric toothbrush.
  • If you find flossing painful and tedious, use a water flosser to remove plaque between your teeth.
  • When you are in pain during a dental procedure, talk to your dentist to decrease the tension in your jaw muscles and relieve your pain.
  • After getting a dental procedure, your dentist may prescribe certain medications or recommend applying ice to reduce your discomfort.
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