Jaw Pain: Not Something to Chew Over

The Temporomandibular Joint (TMJ) is a fancy name for the joint in your jaw. It is the joint that allows you to open and close your mouth. It is located directly in front of your ear. This uniquely formed joint allows both rotary and translational movements. This provides us the ability to not only open and close our mouths widely, but to also protrude and retract our jaw and move it from side-to-side. This helps to accommodate our jaws to all of the different foods we eat (think: without our TMJ the “Big Mac” couldn’t be so big!).

It is estimated that 53% of people suffer from some form of TMJ Disorder. Women are nine times more likely to be affected than men.1 (I know what all of you men are thinking, “of course, women talk more than men!”) In reality, there is a suggested link between the pelvis and TMJ disorders. 2 Women have more stress put on their pelvis during their pregnancy and childbirth and hence more TMJ disorders. Think about the breathing exercises women are taught during childbirth education classes. They breathe with “hee hee, ho ho” motions of their jaw. This reflexive action theoretically can help open up the pelvis for childbirth.

TMJ disorders can be the result of a trauma or injury or they can also come on insidiously. Some classic signs and symptoms include:

  • popping and clicking of the joint
  • pain while opening and closing the mouth
  • inability to open and close the mouth
  • headaches
  • ear pain
  • neck stiffness
  • sinus congestion
  • face pain on the side of the affected TMJ
  • tinnitus, congestion and vertigo

So why do people get TMJ pain? There are a number of different structures in or around the TMJ that, if not functioning optimally, can cause pain. There is an articular disc within the join that can slip, putting pressure on the associated sensory nerves.  Muscles that surround the joint can tighten up or spasm, causing pain and tenderness. Trauma or injury to the area can cause a fracture or inflammation of the synovial fluid that surrounds the joint. Neck pain or headaches can also refer to the area and present as TMJ pain.

Conventional treatment options usually involve a consultation with a dentist. Dentists will often fit the patient for a dental appliance to reduce instability. Other options include medications for the pain and/or surgery.

The best conservative option for treatment to consider is a chiropractic evaluation. Chiropractors are trained to assess the subtle movements of joints and then to correct any misalignments; including the TMJ. A chiropractor or massage therapist can also work with trigger points in the musculature that surrounds the joint to help them relax.

Try this yourself: put your two index fingers on both sides of your jaw, right in front of your ear. Open and close your mouth and feel your TMJ moving. If you feel like it pops or “catches” chances are you have a tracking problem with that joint. A consultation with a licensed health professional would be recommended to keep the pain away.



  1. Nomura K, Vitti M, Oliveira AS, et al. Use of the Fonseca’s questionnaire to assess the prevalence and severity of temporomandibular disorders in Brazilian dental undergraduates. Braz DentJ. 2007;18(2):163-167.
  2. Blum CL. The relationship between the pelvis and stomatognathic system: A position statement. Sacro Occipital Technique Organization –USA. 2008.