A recent patient of mine — an animated grandmother with a big Louisiana drawl — had only lived in Anacortes for two years and didn’t yet appreciate the perils of a Pacific Northwest winter.
She didn’t know about black ice and took a bad fall that left her in pain and with a popping in her jaw whenever she opened and closed her mouth. It wasn’t until several months later however, when she re-injured her jaw and could barely open her mouth, that she knew she needed medical help.
Her doctor diagnosed her with temporomandibular joint (TMJ) dysfunction, a complex group of conditions characterized by chronic pain in the jaw and surrounding soft tissues that can limit jaw movement and affect the ability to speak, chew, swallow, make facial expressions, and breathe. Other symptoms include headaches, ear pain and pressure, neck and shoulder pain, and popping or clicking of the jaw.
After ruling out other medical conditions that might have caused her symptoms, her doctor referred her to me. Once here, I examined her and pinpointed where manual therapy, stretching, massage, and physical therapy modalities could ease her acute symptoms.
I know she could barely eat at that point, and it was obvious that she was in a significant amount of pain that was really limiting her day-to-day quality of life. Even simple things, like waking up and yawning in the morning, caused severe pain.
Over the next three months, I worked with her twice each week to normalize joint alignment and decrease muscle imbalance. We discovered during the evaluation that she was not opening one side of her mouth as much as the other side, so I showed her how to use tongue depressors to help stretch the stiff side, which she did at home in between visits.
Her dedication to her home stretches, along with her attendance in physical therapy, helped to gradually reduce her stiffness and pain, restore mobility and improve her quality of life. Now, thanks to her perseverance and smart move to seek help, she can eat, brush her teeth, and yawn without pain or jaw popping. Her quality of life has greatly improved.
Today more than 35 million people in the U.S. suffer from TMJ dysfunction, which may be caused by injuries to the jaw, autoimmune diseases, infections, dental procedures or various forms of arthritis. Physical therapy is a non-invasive treatment that can relax muscles, improve posture, ease pressure, relieve jaw pain and restore mobility.
If you have been diagnosed with TMJ dysfunction, ask your doctor if a physical therapy referral is right for you. It’s important that you enjoy your life, one without unnecessary pain and physical limitations.