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When it comes to TMJ or temporomandibular joint disorder, while the focus is often on the jaw joint and the pain, swelling and stiffness there, the root cause could actually be due to the bigger picture of posture and stress levels.
Research has repeatedly indicated the prime role that both stress and posture play in the development, triggering and worsening of the symptoms of TMJ so it’s crucial for sufferers and health care providers to take a close look at these two factors and the impact they may be having on each individual case of TMJ.
With millions suffering from TMJ every year, it’s still unclear what all the contributing causal factors are in any one case of TMJ, although many potential causes have been identified.
Joint damage within the temporomandibular joint, whether it’s due to degeneration such as in arthritis, some kind of trauma or injury, or misalignment is thought to be an important part of the disease process.
But stress and emotional factors are also major contributors with 50-70% of TMJ sufferers reporting a high stress event within the 6 months prior to their diagnosis with TMJ, and evidence of a higher rate of depression, anxiety, stress and anger among sufferers of TMJ.
Suffering from a mental illness or even just being constantly stressed out can worsen pain by sensitising nerves in various parts of the body to detect pain more easily.
Once this pain is detected, associated muscles tighten and cause tension, which in turn can promote more pain, developing into what is known as the “anxiety-pain-tension” cycle.
Bad posture also plays a big role in the development and worsening of pain in TMJ
Our bodies are designed with the muscles and bones to be in the correct alignment in order for proper functioning and mobility.
However, in today’s modern world many of us spend most of our day hunched over a computer and sitting down, allowing crucial core muscles to weaken and bad habits to set in.
Unfortunately, because the body was made to function as a whole, misalignment and dysfunction in one area of the body can spread in a domino effect to other areas of the body.
In short, if you sit slouching all day, your core is weak, the spine bends forward and the jaw protrudes which pushes the jaw joint out of alignment and causing problems in the temporomandibular joint.
Bringing awareness to you posture throughout the day is the first crucial step – then you can work on improving it.
Stress and TMJ
Stress leads to tension, tension leads to pain, and more pain means worse TMJ symptoms - that much is clear.
Stress can be related to TMJ in two different ways.
Firstly, as we’ve already seen, stress and mental illness may be factors that contribute to the development of TMJ in the first place. Secondly, due to the severe pain and debilitating nature of TMJ as a disorder, stress may develop following a diagnosis of the disease.
Regardless of the origin, stress makes TMJ much more difficult to deal with and appropriate stress management is a crucial part of healing from TMJ.
As a first stop to deal with stress associated with TMJ, learning and perfecting some effective relaxation techniques that work for you is a must.
Mindfulness meditation is an excellent stress relief and relaxation exercise that is simple and can be quickly learned. Mindfulness meditation is performed by situating yourself in a comfortable position, relaxing the muscles of the body, emptying the mind and trying to focus exclusively on your breath or another object of your choice, such as a mantra.
Progressive muscular relaxation is another excellent and proven method to help promote total body relaxation and ease pain in the temporomandibular joint.
In progressive muscular relaxation, you once again get into a comfortable position and focus only on the body. Starting from the toes and moving up to the head, gradually focus on each muscle in the body and visualise releasing and relaxing it.
If it helps, you can also briefly contract the muscle before releasing it to feel a greater effect.
These two techniques are particularly useful because they also allow some time for the jaw to rest without moving, which can help improve symptoms.
Cognitive behavioural therapy is another technique that has very strong evidence for helping recovery of TMJ by allowing the sufferer to explore their reaction to the pain and how they might be able to change their thought patterns and manage the pain of TMJ more effectively.
Focusing on relieving stress helps to manage TMJ symptoms and promote healing and a better quality of life.
Posture and TMJ
The fast paced lifestyle of long work days and a busy home life doesn’t leave us much time for looking after our bodies these days.
However, looking after ourselves properly in terms of learning correct posture and strengthening core muscles is crucial when it comes to a speedy and total recovery from TMJ.
Studies have shown a correlation between poor posture and pain from TMJ.
Long periods of time spent at a desk sitting down are disastrous for our health on many accounts so it’s important to break up long work days with some stretching and activity.
The ideal way to start improving posture and strengthening those crucial core muscles is to visit a good physiotherapist who can advise you on some effective postural exercises, some special core strengthening techniques, and even provide you with some treatment on your jaw if you’re going through an acute stage with it.
A good physiotherapist will do some tests and even take some X-rays if necessary, and then assign targeted exercises to strengthen supporting muscles throughout your whole body which will filter through to taking the tension off your jaw, and therefore less TMJ pain for you.
In order to improve posture and begin to allow the temporomandibular joint to heal it’s important to learn to stand and sit correctly to bring the body into alignment.
When standing, stand up straight and lift and lengthen the spine, with the chest forward and the shoulders back.
The correct sitting position is similar to the correct standing position, with the body upright and spine long.
Aim to tilt the hips slightly forward, and your feet should rest comfortably on the ground to leave your knees at a right angle.
If your feet have trouble reaching the floor, use a small footstool to achieve the proper positioning.
Don’t push your body too far - with correct posture it’s also very important to be relaxed, so loosen the neck, shoulders and arms.
Most importantly, always keep in mind when looking at a computer screen or even when driving to avoid ‘poking’ the neck forward – this puts a lot of pressure on the jaw and can lead to misalignment.
By bringing new awareness to your posture and stress levels you can accelerate the healing of your TMJ while looking and feeling healthier and rejuvenated.
Has stress or bad posture lead to your TMJ feeling worse? How did you improve it?
Share your thoughts below!