jaw pain treatment

Taking a Bite Out of TMD: Physical Therapy Treatment of Jaw Pain

Physical Therapy for TMD

Have you ever seen someone on TV clutching their jaw in pain and exclaiming, “I have TMJ!”? Well, the truth is, they’re not wrong–we all have TMJ, two of them to be exact. The TMJ, or temporomandibular joint, refers to the joint between the jaw bone and the temporal bone of the skull. What people are actually referring to when they have pain in these joints (there is one on each side), is TMD, or temporomandibular dysfunction.


What is the TMJ?

The TMJ is responsible for opening and closing the jaw, as well as assisting with speech. The TMJ consists of the two joint surfaces that contact a cartilaginous disc in the center, which provides cushioning and stability to the joint. Pain associated with TMD may be felt in the jaw, face, ear, neck or head. Associated symptoms may also include ear fullness, ear pain, tinnitus, headaches, clicking, popping, grinding, or getting stuck with your mouth open or closed.


What is TMD?

TMD refers to dysfunction of the TMJ and associated structures. There are several categories of TMD that are culprits for causing pain in the jaw and surrounding areas. 

Muscle Disorders

  • Tightness in the muscles responsible for moving the jaw (primarily closing) can cause pain that may be felt in the temple, cheek, face, jaw, or head.

Disc Displacement

  • Disc displacement is generally characterized by abnormal movement (too much or too early) of the internal disc during opening and closing of the jaw. Normally the disc should slide forward during jaw opening, but sometimes this occurs too early or the disc can remain stuck in a forward position, causing increased pain with jaw opening or closing. Sometimes the jaw can even get stuck in an open or closed position. 


  • Just like any other joint that moves, there can be arthritis in the TMJ. This occurs due to normal wear and tear over time, but it can cause pain and what is known as “crepitus,” or abnormal joint sounds that may sound like crunching or grinding. However, disc issues can also cause noise when opening or closing the jaw. 


What to do if you think you have TMD

  • The good news—Physical Therapy is an excellent, though often underutilized first-line treatment for TMD.
  • Your PT will assess your jaw and neck movement and check for any tightness in the muscles and joints.
  • There are many treatment options for TMD. They might consist of stretching, range of motion exercises, stretches for posture, and hands on therapy on your jaw, muscles of mastication (eating) and neck and jaw joints. Dry needling is also well supported by current research as a treatment for TMD.
  • Your PT will also work with your dentist or orthodontist if they think that any mouth guards or other dental intervention is needed. 


Take charge of your jaw health today! Request an appointment with one of our skilled Doctors of Physical Therapy to start feeling better now.

More questions? Give us a call at (479) 442-7473. You can also check out additional TMD resources here.


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Written by Alyssa Lindau, PT, DPT