My Experience Going to Physical Therapy for TMJ Pain

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A few years ago, I shared that going Paleo had almost completely cured my alopecia areata, and ever since then, hearing other people's stories about that has really meant a lot to me. Every now and again I'll see in my analytics that someone came across my blog by searching "Paleo and Alopecia" and it makes me feel like maybe I've managed to help someone on that journey.

So now I have a new experience I want to share--I posted on Instagram the other day and asked if anyone else was dealing with TMJ pain and I was really floored by the response. My dad and my brother deal with it, but I didn't expect to hear that so many of you guys are also living with jaw pain.

I started having jaw pain in the spring of 2014--I vividly remember that the week of our wedding, my jaw was starting to click and would actually pop when I opened my mouth all the way. The popping sensation hurt, but it felt good at the same time, like I was releasing tension or something. After a couple months, it stopped popping and I wasn't able to fully open my mouth again for weeks at a time. I had to stop eating crunchy things like sweet potato chips, and just looking at a whole apple made my jaw hurt--I always had to cut them into small pieces.

When we moved to Charlotte, I made a long-overdue appointment with a dentist, who referred me to an oral surgeon. This was terrifying to me for a number of reasons: I have a pretty serious needle phobia, I was anxious about the possibility of having to have surgery on my jaw, and the larger, even more irrational side of me was convinced that they were going to tell me that my pain was the result of a tumor or something equally frightening. But I went, and after a series of (noninvasive and no-big-deal) tests, they determined that there was nothing wrong with my jaw joint and that I should start seeing a physical therapist to work on my muscles, which were causing the pain.

I was really surprised by that--for some reason I never even thought about going to physical therapy for my jaw. In my mind, PT was for people who had been injured in some way, and it never occurred to me that it could be helpful for chronic pain caused by TMJ issues. I started going in October or November, twice a week for a while. My therapist offered to try dry needling, but I was pretty against the idea of it, so every visit she would check my jaw and see how far I could open my mouth, and then she'd spend 20-30 minutes working on the muscles in my face, neck, and sometimes even shoulder. She taught me some strengthening and stretching exercises that would help, and slowly but surely I only needed to see her once a week, and then once a month, and then once every month and a half.

Now we're on an as-needed basis--my jaw doesn't hurt regularly anymore and only bothers me if I'm doing a lot of traveling, not getting good sleep, or am more stressed/anxious than normal. My next step in this journey to no TMJ pain is to start seeing a massage therapist every month or so for my tight neck and shoulders, which really cause the majority of my jaw pain. And, as always, I'm working on letting things go, learning how to relax, and making a priority out of taking care of myself.

I know that everyone is different and TMJ pain manifests itself in a lot of different ways for the people who have it, but I wanted to share my story because it wasn't as dramatic or scary as I thought it would be. So if you're dealing with jaw pain, talk to your dentist about it and see what they say. I didn't mention it for so long because I was afraid of what they would tell me, but that's not a great way to deal with anything, especially chronic pain. I also thought TMJ pain was just something you had to live with and manage as best you can, but it's not. Like most things in life, you can get through it, then look back on it and be grateful that you did. It feels good to get better.

Do any of you have TMJ pain? What have (or haven't) you done to fix it?