DIY Friday: Make Your Jaw Happy

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*Do it yourself! Every Friday we do a roundup of great posts, videos, or other resources around a theme that help people to turn their bodies from cranky to happy.*

5504152401_e1df6a4387_bI do the work that I do because of TMJD, otherwise known as Temporal Mandibular Joint Disorder. You may know it better as jaw clicking, popping, locking, and pain. I had a birth injury which injured my upper cervicals (neck), and so I grew up with an out of whack jaw which, by the time I was in my early 20’s, was barely functional. I could occasionally open my mouth all the way (it sounded like a rifle going off and would attract confused stares), and for a period of a few months in a row I actually wasn’t able to open it more than a quarter of an inch; Just enough to squeeze a straw through my teeth to get some liquid nourishment in. I actually had a physical therapist tell me I would be on soft foods or even a liquid diet for the rest of my life. I was twenty-two.

This lovely condition meant that I also had severe chronic pain in my head, neck, spine, and sacroiliac joints. I was a mess. I was also very lucky to find a TMJD (sometimes also called TMD) specialist who didn’t believe in the surgery, and after building some splints to re-align my jaw is the person who ordered me to get some good bodywork (I had no idea what that meant at the time, but after researching I found my way to Rolfing®) and to learn how to meditate. To keep this DIY Friday from spiraling into a memoir, I’ll end the story there but suffice it to say, I got better, I discovered a career I love, and if you are suffering with this condition I feel your pain. For reals.

That said, I have wanted to write this DIY Friday for ages but since I am oh so passionate about TMJD I tend to go on and on and on. I’m going to try and keep it short and will save the meaty version for a book series I am kicking off this year on resolving common chronic pain and mobility issues (stay tuned!).

Ok, I’m reigning myself in, TMJD, as I mentioned, is a disorder of the jaw. It is ridiculously common, and varies from mild to severe. My case is an example of the severe range. Other people may just have occasional clicking or locking and headaches or neck pain. It also often manifests with sacroiliac pain (the dimples at your low back where it meets your pelvis), as the jaw and SI joints commonly mirror one another.

Things get out of whack in a jaw for a myriad of reasons, but injury, poorly done orthodontia or other dental work, and stress are top of the heap. Regardless of the cause, what happens is that your bite winds up not meeting properly, and the cartilaginous disc that is between your mandible (jaw bone) and your temporal bone gets out of place (the clicking you hear is when it slips back into place, when the disc does not go back into place, or if it gets folded over on itself, the jaw will lock). This also loads your musculature and fascia improperly and you wind up with pain and a gnarly full body compensatory pattern.

Because the root issue is a poorly aligned bite, in the past people in the medical world have gone bonkers and jumped right in to whittle down people’s teeth, surgically alter their TMJ in horrific ways, or even break and reset the jaw. Do not go this route! Your jaw is misaligned because your soft tissue- fascia, muscles, tendons, and ligaments- are out of alignment. This can be resolved. So before you go altering what your maker gave you, get some smart soft tissue work. You may have a severe case in which case extremely well informed orthodontia may be needed to move your teeth into the position of your new bite (I had to do this), but cases that require this are in the minority. And the surgeries for TMJD have all had very poor outcomes, and often leave people with more pain than they started with and a lifetime of repair surgeries. In short, keep it mellow and be suspicious of highly invasive tactics. Less is more when it comes to realigning the jaw.

To get your jaw aligned without invasive and unsuccessful interventions, I highly recommend you seek out one or a few of the following:

A Rolfing practitioner or other Structural Integrator: Rolfers like me graduated from the school Dr. Rolf founded, The Rolf Institute, other SI people go to different schools like The Guild or KMI. • A craniosacral therapist: People who practice craniosacral have widely varying degrees of education. Make sure your practitioner is well trained and hasn’t just dipped their toes into this form of manual therapy with a few hours or a weekend of training. • A cranial osteopath: This is brilliant and highly sophisticated work. • An acupuncturist: Not someone who has studied “dry needling” in one weekend to tack it on to their medical or PT practice. A real deal acupuncturist. If they have also studied Chinese herbs that’s a good sign of a highly educated Chinese medicine doctor.

But wait! This is DIY Friday!? Well good news, I adore this video of my teacher, Jill Miller, with Kelly Starrett of Mobility WOD working with TMJD. This sequence is profound and I would have given my right arm to have had it 16 years ago. So use it well.

A few caveats: Jill’s tissue is like silk from all the smart input she gives it, so if you are flared up with a jaw disorder, or simply if this is your first work with the therapy balls, do what she is doing but in slow motion. The therapy balls can be found here, and if you’re looking for one to buy instead of all of them the alpha (the single large therapy ball) will be your best option in this sensitive tissue as it is a broader stroke. Do not use lacrosse balls, golf balls, baseballs, or any other ridiculous hard balls in this area. This is a sensitive place!

Without further ado, I give you Jill and Kelly:

photo by Theen