TMJ (TemporoMandibular Joint Syndrome) refers to a condition related to the joint connecting the jaw (mandible) to the skull. Several symptoms may be experienced, including myofascial pain, inability to comfortably open the mouth, locking of the jaw, clicking or popping sounds in the jaw joint, headaches, and ear pain or ringing in the ears. Pain may even radiate into the neck and shoulders.
TMJ may result from injury, overstretching the jaw during dental or surgical procedures, repetitive movements (gum chewing), or clenching and grinding the teeth (bruxism). There seems to be a connection between TMJ and some autoimmune diseases. More than 50% of those diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis also suffer from TMJ.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) estimates that up to 25 million people may experience some or all of these symptoms. Though both men and women are affected, women seem to be more at risk. Western medical treatment includes the use of anti-inflammatory drugs, oral splints and in 5-10% of patients – surgical correction.
In 1997, the NIH organized a panel of pain specialists who concluded that “acupuncture may be a useful adjunct treatment or acceptable alternative” to treat TMJ. Today, TMJ is quite commonly and successfully treated by acupuncture.
The basic premise behind the theory of acupuncture is that energy flows thru the body on very specific pathways called meridians. When these pathways become blocked, pain and disease result. Inserting very fine needles into points on the pathways facilitates the smooth flow of energy and pain is relieved. There are twenty documented meridians in the body. Four of the meridians flow directly thru the jaw joint.
Some acupuncturists choose to put needles locally in the area of the pain – around the ear and in points along the jaw. And it is perfectly acceptable to do so. But, the meridian system is very complex and there are many inter-connecting pathways and relationships between the meridians that make local needles unnecessary. Some of the most powerful points to treat TMJ are located near the big toe, elbows and knees. This is usually my approach. Often within minutes of inserting these distal needles, the patient is able to notice the difference in the jaw – less pain and greater range of motion. If grinding of the teeth is an issue, I will add an experience point on the lower leg that treats bruxism.
After the needles are removed, relief will vary between patients. If the TMJ has been chronic, several treatments will most likely be necessary. Often, I apply small seeds to the surface of the ear over points that have been shown to correspond to the jaw. By applying pressure to the seeds between treatments, the patient can extend the benefits of the acupuncture treatment by doing this self acupressure treatment.
Chinese medicine categorizes pain and disease in terms of the energy in the body being out of balance. This out of balance is either diagnosed as being excess or deficient, or a combination. An acupuncturist will gather information about the progression of the disease, inquire as to what factors aggravate or alleviate the symptoms, analyze all bodily functions, examine the tongue and take the pulse. A pattern of disharmony between the meridians and their associated organs in the body becomes apparent.
In addition to inserting needles into points to address the jaw symptoms, additional needles may be placed to treat the underlying cause of the problem. Because of this very individualized approach, I may see ten people with TMJ and treat them all slightly differently, based on their Chinese medical diagnosis. In some cases, an herbal formula may be recommended.