Most people think of TMJ syndrome as a simple problem of nighttime tooth clenching. However, clenching may be only a small part of the picture. For many, TMJ is a chronic problem, can cause a great deal of pain, and can affect your quality of life.

What Is TMJ Syndrome?

TMJ syndrome, or simply TMJ, refers to the temporomandibular joint that attaches your lower jaw to your skull. Your TMJ is located right in front of your ears, and moves every time you open your mouth to talk, laugh, eat, or yawn, and problems can occur if the joint becomes inflamed, out of alignment, or injured. TMJ is considered to be a syndrome because it can cause a wide variety of symptoms, and no two sufferers are likely to experience it in the same way.

Symptoms associated with TMJ include sensitive teeth, tooth grinding, waking with headaches, facial pain, pain in the joint itself, and tightness and pain as far away as your neck and shoulders. In addition, you may have the sensation that your teeth don’t fit together well, difficulty opening your mouth all the way, and clicking or popping sounds when you’re eating.

What Causes TMJ Syndrome?

The most frequent cause of TMJ is tooth grinding or clenching, which is often an unwanted by-product of stress. Furthermore, most people who grind their teeth do it during the night and are completely unaware that they’re doing so until they experience symptoms. Clenching usually occurs because your masseter muscle—a tiny muscle at the lower corner of your jaw—becomes tight. It’s one of the strongest muscles in your body, and when it becomes tight, it can throw your jaw out of alignment and cause pain in your head, neck, and shoulders. Beyond clenching, other causes of TMJ problems include whiplash, arthritis in the joint, injury to your jaw or the TMJ joint itself, or a head or neck injury.

How Can Acupuncture Help?

Many people who suffer from TMJ symptoms are curious to know if acupuncture can help them. The answer is that in most instances, acupuncture can be effective on a number of levels. Acupuncture can decrease inflammation locally, where the needles are placed, in this case in and around the TMJ. It alleviates stress by releasing feel-good neurotransmitters in your brain, which in turn can help reduce tooth clenching. In addition, acupuncture can increase circulation and help loosen the masseter muscles that cause clenching, as well as muscles throughout your head, neck, and shoulders that have become tight as a result. Furthermore, acupuncture has been documented to be an effective treatment for headaches, including those related to TMJ problems.

A practitioner of acupuncture would consider your TMJ to be a kind of blockage, in that the circulation of blood and nutrients to the area are hampered and the range of motion in the joint is decreased. Their strategy is to understand the source of your TMJ issues and develop a treatment plan best suited to your needs. Their first line of treatment would likely be acupuncture to relieve your pain, increase circulation to the area, decrease inflammation, and support healing. Interestingly, there are three acupuncture points right at the site of your temporomandibular joint that can be used for effective results. Your acupuncturist may also use other healing tools, such as bodywork or heat therapy to help relieve muscle tightness in the area.

The good news is that if you’re struggling with TMJ problems, it’s not a life sentence. TMJ syndrome is treatable, and your acupuncturist can offer effective relief.