TMD (TMJ) and Physical Therapy

Affecting anywhere between 10 and 35 million Americans, temporomandibular joint disorder (TMD) is a common condition that limits the abilities of the jaw. TMD is often used interchangeably with TMJ, which actually refers to the affected joint and not the disorder itself. The TMJ is the joint that connects the jaw to the skull (by the ear) and aids in jaw movement.

What are the symptoms of TMD?

In addition to jaw pain (which is the most common), symptoms of TMD include:

  • Difficulty with eating or talking
  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Jaw fatigue
  • Lockjaw
  • Neck pain
  • Popping sounds in the jaw
  • Ringing in the ears (tinnitus)

PLEASE NOTE: Jaw pain may also be a sign of a heart attack. Call 9-1-1 immediately if the pain appears with chest pain, dizziness, left arm pain or numbness, nausea or shortness of breath.

What causes TMD?

TMD affects more women than men and is usually diagnosed in patients between 20 to 40 years of age. Causes for TMD include:

Chronic Jaw Clenching (Bruxism)

Many patients clench their jaw when sleeping due to stress. This constant pressure places a strain on the TMJ and the associated muscles.


A fracture in the lower jaw following trauma can cause TMD, even after the fracture has healed.

Lockjaw (Trismus)

Lockjaw can be both a cause and a symptom of TMD. It occurs when the jaw muscles spasm and limit the jaw’s motion.

Misaligned Teeth (Malocclusion)

When teeth are in an unusual position, it puts a strain on the TMJ doing everyday motions, such as chewing.

Poor Posture

Although there are many bad posture habits that can cause TMD (e.g., sitting during a long commute, holding a child on the same side, etc.), the most common is the forward head position when sitting at a desk. This puts a strain on the muscles, spinal discs and ligaments related to the TMJ. As a result, the jaw is forced to rest in an open position and overuses the muscles used to chew.

Surgical Procedures

After certain kinds of jaw or facial surgeries, the TMJ may lose some function, resulting in TMD.

How can physical therapy help TMD?

Physical therapy can help restore the natural movement of the jaw to decrease pain and other symptoms. This is achieved through various exercises that relax, release and stretch tight muscles and scar tissue. A physical therapist may utilize techniques including:

  • Exercises to improve range of motion and flexibility in the jaw muscles
  • Heat therapy to increase blood flow
  • Ice therapy (cryotherapy) to reduce swelling and pain
  • Massages to ease overall muscle tension (manual therapy)
  • Posture training to improve the resting position of the jaw, neck, head, shoulder blades and breastbone when walking and sitting
  • Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS), which applies a gentle electrical current to the affected area through electrodes placed on the skin
  • Ultrasound therapy using high-frequency sound waves to reduce pain and swelling while improving circulation

Physical therapy is often used in conjunction with medications, such as over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories or prescribed muscle relaxants. It may also be implemented following surgery of the face or jaw to reduce pain and swelling while promoting healing.

For more information about how physical therapy effectively treats TMD or to schedule an appointment with our physical therapist, contact Spinal Rehabilitation and Wellness Center today.