Longer hours sat at computers, higher anxiety, more stress… what the aforementioned factors all have in common is their link to Temporomandibular Joint Dysfunction, or, more commonly referred to as TMJ, TMJD, or TMD. Dental professionals have noticed a significant and steady uptick in cases, with symptoms including popping, clicking, headaches, joint locking, muscle spasms, and pain when chewing or speaking.
It’s not news that the millennial generation is more sleep deprived, insecure, and stressed than their predecessors. But the physical manifestation taking place is alarming after considering that, if left untreated, TMJ can cause tooth breakage, infections, chronic headaches, debilitating neck/jaw pain, and depression.
Put simply, TMJ is any issue relating to the hinge that connects your jaw to your skull. Problems can arise from injury, misalignment of your teeth, and arthritis, to name just a few.
The biggest red flag is that the symptoms can progress to a point of no return. Some patients resort to procedures that are neither effective nor safe, including controversial surgeries and costly guards and devices that might protect your teeth from breakage but won’t actually reverse anything. In other words, your muscles need to be untrained and re-stabilized.
Before going under the knife or shelling out hundreds (or thousands!) on a mouth guard, the first thing you need to do is find out if it is, in fact, a misalignment of your pearly whites. If so, orthodontia might be a good option — it’s still costly, but when surgery is your only other course of action, it’s better to give the less invasive option a try.
If neither misalignment nor trauma via injury are the cause, you might be dealing with stress-induced TMJ. It’s extremely frustrating to be told that it’s all the fault of stress. Even the word “stress” makes you, well, stressed.
Studies in the past few years have unearthed the subconscious effect that stress can have on our bodies. All that pent up anxiety and long hours at the office after nights of minimal sleep will translate to an unhappy jaw.
So whether you’re a nighttime clencher or an all-day flexer, it’s time you take your wellbeing into your own hands — literally. After about eight years of experiencing TMJ issues, I’ve done plenty of research and testing on myself to know what natural modalities are the most effective. Rather than subject yourself to the more extreme options, why not give the following a try? (Note: consistency is key. Some will provide immediate relief, while others will take a few tries.)
Gua Sha —
Jade rollers are great, but it’s Gua Sha that is truly magical for sufferers with TMJ. When used properly, a Gua Sha can break up some of the fascia that forms due to inflammation and the overuse of muscle. But be careful; as amazing as it might feel to massage some of those tender points, going too hard can actually aggravate and agitate the muscle, furthering inflammation, aka: more clenching. Be gentle, and apply strength in a conservative fashion so you don’t go overboard. A good intro to using a Gua Sha can be found here. You can also use it to massage other muscles of the face that may be feeling a bit of reciprocal pain from TMJ — namely the temples, cheekbones, mastoid muscles along the front of the neck, and along the eyebrows.
These little miracle needles have been clinically proven to reduce pain, and the jaw is no exception to that fact. They re-channel the flow of energy, releasing pain-relieving endorphins and redirecting blood flow to otherwise stagnant or inflamed areas of the body. It will take a few treatments to feel any results, but the effects will magnify over longer periods of time if you stick to it for a few months.
Stress management and counseling —
So much easier said than done, but stress management can be vital to relieving your TMJ pain. This means that breathwork, meditation, exercise, journaling, and the like might redirect that stressful energy into different directions as opposed to localizing in the jaw. Additionally, some argue that jaw pain is a result of repressed emotion or internalization of emotions, so scheduling a few sessions with a therapist might be incredibly effective on your journey to healing.
Massage and physical therapy —
Melt away tension at the hands of a massage or physical therapist. For at-home massaging, wellness blogger Lee Tilghman made this great video showing some of the techniques she learned from Sadie Adams of Take Care LA. Therapy can apply treatment from the inside and the implementation of stretches and exercises will strengthen other muscles around the area and shift the mind’s focus away from the jaw.
Ice or moist heat —
Be it a hot, wet towel or a microwavable pack, moist heat or applications of ice can be a lifesaver in times when symptoms reach a climax. Alternate for 20 minutes cold and 20 minutes hot, making sure to avoid overheating so you don’t burn. Do this for an hour or two depending on the severity.
In supplement or dissolvable powder form, Magnesium is a fantastic natural muscle relaxant that can be a lifesaver for tension headaches and neck, shoulder, and facial pain. (I prefer Natural Vitality’s Natural Calm powder that can be dissolved in a glass of water.) Start small, increasing the dosage slowly as you get accustomed to the relaxing effects. If supplements are more your jam, Pure Encapsulations’ Magnesium (Glycinate) is a fan favorite.
Avoiding stimulants in the evening —
Caffeine. Sugar. Chocolate. Alcohol. Screens. They all rev up our internal functions when we should be spending the evening hours winding down and de-stressing. Cut it all out if possible after 4 or 5pm. If you can’t avoid a screen for that long, lower the glare and activate red light/sunset mode if you have it on your device.
Dental guards —
Ultimately, you need to protect your teeth from breaking and subsequent infections. Ask your dental provider about guards, but be wary of hefty price tags. Store bought options work well for many, but sometimes your dentist knows best and can fit you with a guard that might be able to align your teeth in a way that may calm symptoms.
If you become your own advocate while utilizing these measures, in time you will feel relief, living a more productive existence without the weight of the world resting on your shoulders — or a few inches above them.
Charlotte Farrell is a freelance writer and editor who loves nothing more than a piping hot matcha latte and topics that explore wellness, fashion, self-care, food, climate change, feminism, beauty, fitness, and travel. She graduated with honors in Communications and English Literature from the University of California, San Diego, and is now based in NYC where she enjoys reading, writing, exploring, and dreaming about gluten-free pastries.