Tooth Pain or Jaw Muscle Pain?

Have you ever woken up with agonising tooth pain? You hastily book an appointment with your dentist, fearing a cavity, or worse… a root canal problem, only to be told there is nothing wrong with your tooth and that you must be imagining the pain?

What?! Really?! I can FEEL it! It’s RIGHT IN MY TOOTH!

Well, instead of a dental emergency, you might be experiencing what is known as a TMJ Disorder – Temporomandibular Junction Disorder. This lengthy mouthful of words is merely referring to the part of your face where your jaw, (mandible) hinges on to your skull (temporal bone) so you can: speak, chew, breathe and many other mouth-related activities. A fairly common occurrence can be the manifestation of trigger points in the muscles of the jaw.

The two main culprits involved are the ‘cheek’ muscle known as the Masseter and the Temporalis, up around the temples, both of which have the primary responsibility of chewing or closing the jaw. When these two particular muscles get tight, the trigger points send their acute pain referral pattern right into the teeth (pictured below) causing you to think that perhaps you’ve cracked a tooth or a cavity is forming!

Trigger points in the jaw muscles can occur due to a number of reasons. One causative factor that we see over and over is stress. When people are stressed they have a habit of grinding their teeth or clenching their jaw. This might be a subconscious action, or perhaps only occurs during sleep, but jaw clenching and teeth grinding places these muscles under continuous load – causing the trigger points to form.

Another reason trigger points form in the jaw muscles is a direct result of excessive chewing. Someone with a preference towards chewing gum, or enjoys jerky or other tough, chewy foods may also become victim to these trigger points.

As you can see, the pain does not always refer directly into the teeth, but can also manifest as headaches around the eyes and temples.

Let’s try a little experiment: Take your non-dominant hand and place the knuckles of your index, middle (and ring?) finger in your mouth. Do they fit? You should be able to fit three knuckles comfortably into your mouth – if you can’t then perhaps you are experiencing tightness in muscles of the jaw.

So what can you do about it?

  • Apply heat & stretch: place a heat pack on your cheeks, directly between your cheek bone (zygomatic arch) and jaw line for approximately 10 minutes.afterwards you can do some gentle stretching by placing your fingers up against your cheek bones (to pin the muscle down) and slowly opening your mouth. Repeat this action 4-5 times.
  • Meditate: you don’t necessarily have to sit somewhere quietly and breathe, but just find some time to relax and clear your head to help reduce stress, particularly before bedtime.
  • Draw awareness to your jaw: try to catch yourself clenching or grinding your teeth as often as possible so as not to prolong the load on the jaw. This is difficult at first, but if you keep checking or even leave little reminders near your work space or throughout your house, you will be helping your jaw and the muscles.
  • Get a Myotherapy treatment: Myotherapists are trained in the safe, effective release of muscular trigger points all over the body – including your face!

So next time the dentist has turned you away for the third time this week, telling you, “your teeth are fine!”, consider your jaw muscles instead!

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