TMJ Exercises to Treat Pain

Overview: Temporomandibular Joint (TMJ) & Its Functions

The temporomandibular joint (TMJ) is where the lower part of your jaw, called the mandible, connects to your skull. 

If you place a finger in front of the lower part of your ear and open your mouth, you will feel the TMJ at work. 

The TMJ allows the jaw to move up-and-down, sideways, and front-to-back. This makes it vital for talking, yawning, and chewing food. 

Muscles also attach to the TMJ, helping it to control the jaw’s position and movement.

What Causes Temporomandibular Joint (TMJ) Pain?

The TMJ’s wide field of movement and controlling tissues make it very complex. Because of this, it’s not always easy to diagnose problems. 

There are three broad categories of TMJ pain:

  1. Myofascial pain — Masticatory (chewing) muscles in the TMJ can become inflamed due to a variety of causes. This can happen from teeth-grinding or clenching. Certain procedures like oral surgery or radiotherapy can also scar the TMJ tissue.9
  2. Disk derangement — There is also a disk made of cartilage in the TMJ meant to absorb shocks while chewing. That disk can sometimes slip out of alignment. Traumatic injuries such as blows to the heads or jaw dislocation are common causes here.
  3. Degenerative joint diseases — These include osteoarthritis (OA) and rheumatoid arthritis (RA).

Here are some risk factors for TMJ pain:

  • Stress
  • Dehydration
  • Bad posture
  • Frequent chewing
  • Contact sports, which can lead to head trauma
  • Family history
  • Age (those between ages 20 and 40 are most vulnerable)1
  • Some prescription medications (illegal narcotics such as MDMA/Ecstasy can also cause TMJ pain)7

8 Best TMJ Exercises to Relieve Pain & Discomfort

Here are the best exercises available for TMJ pain:

1. Active Jaw Stretching 

This exercise is a great way to improve range of motion.

Open your mouth as wide as possible. Hold that position for about ten seconds, being sure to get a good stretch. Then, move your jaw left and right, holding each position for about three seconds. 

Finally, move your jaw in circles, left-to-right and right-to-left. Repeat this exercise five times.

2. Passive Jaw Stretching

Use your thumb and index fingers to open your jaw as wide as you can manually. You should feel a slight stretch here. Hold this position for ten seconds. Repeat this process five times. 

3. Neck Stretch 

Bend your neck forward and backward. Then turn your head to the left and right. Finally, bend your neck left and right so that each ear touches a shoulder. 

4. Tongue Stretch 

This is a great way to strengthen the jaw muscles.

Rest your tongue on the roof of your mouth. Then relax your jaw muscles. Let your jaw hang down until you feel your tongue being pulled away. Then hold this position for ten seconds. 

Repeat this process for the next five minutes.

5. Lateral Mandibular Stabilization

Use your thumbs to push your jaw to the left and right. Hold each position for three seconds.

6. Chin Tuck

Look down, tucking your chin into your chest. Hold for five seconds. Do five repetitions.

7. Goldfish Exercises

Rest your tongue against the roof of your mouth while placing a finger against the TMJ. 

Place another finger or thumb under your chin. Then drop your jaw (if you can’t drop your jaw all the way, just do so partially). 

Do this six times per session, six sessions per day.

8. Forward Jaw Movement

Place an object one-fourth of an inch between your two front teeth and move your jaw forward. Gradually increase the size of the object as you progress.

How Long Does it Take for TMJ Exercises to Work?

When you first do these exercises, your pain may initially get worse. 

Don’t be alarmed: this is because your jaw is getting used to the range of motion. The exercises are also forcing your TMJ tissues to get stronger.

Your TMJ pain should subside within two or three weeks. After that point, you should be able to open and close your jaw without trouble.

What Not to Do if You Have TMJ Pain

If you are experiencing jaw pain, you should refrain from doing the following:

  • Grinding or clenching your teeth — Aside from being terrible for your teeth, this can keep your TMJ tissues inflamed and prevent proper healing. If you do this while sleeping, consider investing in a nightguard.
  • Chewing on objects (such as pens) or gum —  This can unnecessarily stress the masticator muscles in your face, causing inflammation.
  • Resting your jaw on your hands or flat surfaces —  This is a habit many of us do while studying or reading but it can place pressure on the disk in your TMJ.
  • Chewing only on one side of your mouth —  Give the side you chew on a break by chewing on both sides.
  • Slouching —  Poor posture is a risk factor for TMJ pain. Always be sure to stand straight upright, head facing forward.
  • Eating hard or crunchy foods —  Consider switching to soft foods and liquids to give your masticator muscles a rest.

When to See a Doctor for TMJ Pain

If you have been doing daily exercises for two or three weeks and still feel jaw pain, it may be time to see a doctor. TMJ pain is a possible sign of temporomandibular disorder (TMD).2

TMD is a series of problems related to the TMJ which can interfere with your ability to fully open or close your jaw. Approximately 5 to 12% of people are affected by it.4

Your doctor can check for TMD by placing their finger in your ear while you move your jaw. They may also ask questions regarding the pain you feel, such as what might trigger it and how long it lasts. 

Depending on the specific cause, you may then need to see a dentist or a TMJ specialist for treatment. Treatment for TMD depends on the severity but it sometimes requires surgery to resolve.

Resources

Gauer, Robert L., and Michael J. Semidey. “Diagnosis and Treatment of Temporomandibular Disorders.American Family Physician, vol. 15, no. 6, 2015, pp. 378-386. www.aafp.org.

Ibi, Miho. “Inflammation and Temporomandibular Joint Derangement.Biological & pharmaceutical bulletin, vol. 42, no. 4, 2019, pp. 538-542. pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov.

Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. “Preventing Trismus.www.mskcc.org.

National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research. “Prevalence of TMJD and its Signs and Symptoms.www.nidcr.nih.gov, 2018.

National Institutes of Health. “TMJ Disorders.www.nidcr.nih.gov, 2017.

Oxford University Hospitals. “TMJ Exercises.” www.ouh.nhs.uk, 2015.

Santiago-Rosado, Livia M. “Trismus.StatPearls [Internet]., StatPearls Publishing, 2021. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov.

Southeastern Pennsylvania Oral Surgery. “TMJ Disorders.www.sepaoralsurgery.com/.

Wu, Vincent W.C. “Radiation‐induced temporo‐mandibular joint disorder in post‐radiotherapy nasopharyngeal carcinoma patients: assessment and treatment.” Journal of medical radiation sciences, vol. 63, no. 2, pp. 124-32. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov.

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