6 Must-Try Exercises to Alleviate and Prevent a TMJ Disorder

Updated on

Medically reviewed by Mark Burhenne, DDS

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A temporomandibular joint disorder (TMD) is a common condition that millions of people suffer from each year. A TMD, often referred to simply as TMJ, occurs when the temporomandibular joint is damaged or otherwise functioning improperly.

This can result in jaw pain, headaches, difficulty chewing, pain after sleep, earaches, and various other issues.

Temporomandibular disorders are often misdiagnosed and mistreated. Medical experts who lack experience with TMDs may struggle to provide care. Meanwhile, many recommended solutions, such as hot compresses and pain relief drugs, will only offer temporary respite.

The jaw joint is especially difficult to treat because the joint itself is so complex. No other joint provides for such a wide range of movement as your jaw. At the same time, your jaw is strong enough to chew tough, hard foods yet precise enough to enable speech.

One way to achieve lasting pain relief and potentially heal your TMD is to give your jaw a workout or massage. Physical therapy is a proven technique for treating TMJ disorders and it may improve your range of motion and even reduce the facial pain you’re feeling.

However, if done wrong, you may further damage your joint.

If you experience sharp pain while performing any of the below jaw exercises, stop and consult a TMD specialist.

What causes TMD, and how long does it last?

There are myriad causes that may be behind pain around your jawbone and reduced jaw movement. These range from stress to disordered sleep breathing to arthritis and more. (Dr. Burhenne discusses these at length in his article on TMD).

For many people, TMJ pain lasts days to weeks and may resolve once you’ve targeted the root cause. In chronic cases, TMD lasts for years and may flare up on a regular basis.

Sadly, up to 49% of TMD cases are never fully cured — prevention is a big deal! That’s where TMJ exercises come in.

Do TMJ Exercises Actually Help?

Yes! Appropriate TMJ exercises can help improve your joint’s health.

Generally speaking, exercise is best as a preventative form of treatment. If you’re not suffering from a TMJ disorder right now, by engaging in the appropriate exercises, you may be able to prevent a disorder in the future.

Of course, nothing is guaranteed and even with appropriate exercise, you could suffer a TMD.

Physical therapy may also help heal an ongoing TMD. If you’re already suffering from a TMD, strengthening the muscles and stretching out the joint may provide pain relief and help your joint heal. Physical therapy may even be able to help you realign your joint.

However, if you are already suffering from a TMD, physical exertion could worsen your condition. It’s especially important to ensure that you’re performing the right workouts. Keep that in mind if you decide to work your jaw muscles and joint out.

TMJ exercises are typically strengthening exercises, but may also fall into the category of relaxation exercises, used to train the muscle around your jaw joint to rest.

6 Exercises For TMJ Pain Relief

The below exercises may be able to improve your jaw’s overall health, and may also prevent or relieve a TMD. Again, if you experience sharp pain while engaging in the below exercises, stop and consult a physical therapist or TMD expert.

1. First, Start With a Simple Massage

Take your fingers and align them at the bottom of your jaw on each side. Your fingers should be resting just in front of your TMJ on the mandible itself. Now, push up gently and move your fingers until right below your eyes. Rest and repeat.

Next, place your fingers slightly above your eyes but below your temples. Now repeat the last massage, pushing in gently and then pushing upwards.

Finally, you’ll do the same massages in reverse. Take three fingers and place them below your eyes, behind your cheeks. Then, push down gently. You can do the same on your temples.

2. Marionette Tongue Exercise

Now, let’s home in more closely on the TMJ.

Place your tongue on the roof of your mouth and hold it there. Next, open your jaw wide while keeping your tongue on the roof of your mouth. If your tongue disconnects from the roof of your mouth, you opened too wide.

You shouldn’t feel any additional pain while doing this. If you do, stop and consult a professional. You should do the above exercise 10-15 times, 3 times a day.

3. Thumbs Up

Next, you’re going to close your mouth and let your tongue take a rest.

Take your thumb and put it below your jaw and exert a bit of pressure on your jaw. Next, counter your thumb with your jaw.

You don’t want to use a lot of force with either your thumb or jaw but should be able to create a good, balanced pushing contest between the two.

4. Thumbs Down

While performing thumbs up, when your jaw is open, you can also move your thumb and exert slight pressure down on your jaw while closing it. You can also do this separately without doing a thumbs up.

Feel free to pinch your chin as well to get a better grip. Either way, the trick is to make your muscles work a bit harder to close your mouth.

5. Goldfish Exercise

This one’s a bit more difficult to explain but quite easy to perform once you get it.

  1. Put your tongue on the roof of your mouth.
  2. Take your index finger and place it on your TMJ joint, which can be found in front of your ear.
  3. Place your other index finger on the front of your chin, towards the bottom.
  4. Open your jaw about halfway, then close.

You can also open your jaw all the way instead of halfway. It’s smart to increase your jaw strength before going for a full opening. You should feel a bit of resistance, but not any sharp pain.

If you do, stop. If not? Do a set of 5-10 openings. Repeat 4 to 6 times per day.

6. Chin Tuck

Standing straight, with your shoulders held high and your chest puffed out, bring your chin down and back to rest on your neck and/or upper chest. Hold, then repeat.

Other Treatment Options for TMJ Symptoms

Are physical therapy and exercise your only recourse for a TMD? Absolutely not!
In fact, depending on your condition and the root cause(s), another form of TMJ treatment may be more effective.

  1. A night guard may offer short-term relief and help protect your teeth from signs of teeth grinding (called “bruxism”). If your TMD is caused by this kind of constant clenching, a night guard may help temporarily but won’t fix your actual bite issues.
  2. Oral splints, which look similar to a night guard or mouth guard but are far more complex in design and construction, can help you realign your jaw and bite. If your joint is misaligned, this will reduce strain on your jaw.
  3. Other types of bite alignment, like braces or occlusal equilibration, may be required, depending on the placement of your bite. Poor bite structure will likely cause recurring TMJ pain.
  4. If your TMD is related to bruxism because of sleep apnea, it’s vitally important to work with a sleep specialist alongside your dentist to resolve it. This may involve a sleep study, prescription of a CPAP/APAP machine, or a sleep apnea oral device.
  5. Steroid injections can help TMJ pain caused by arthritis. This treatment plan, unfortunately, doesn’t actually improve anything but joint pain, like issues with your mouth opening or jaw position.
  6. If your TMD is caused by inflammation (or causing inflammation), anti-inflammatory drugs or other medications, such as antidepressants or even botox, may help. You can use ibuprofen and other over the counter drugs to provide temporary pain relief.
  7. Is your TMD accompanied by muscle tension? This is common. Fortunately, muscle relaxers can provide relief.
  8. Another great option for pain relief is a hot compress. The moist heat can melt your pain away. Meanwhile, a cold compress can reduce swelling.
  9. In one out of every 100 cases, TMJ surgery may be indicated. While it’s rare, these surgeries may offer relief for severe cases.

And if you’re working out your jaw, make sure you also rest it. Avoid hard and chewy foods, including chewing gum, until such time that your jaw is strong enough to handle them! If you’re still suffering from pain from all of the above, it might be time to see a doctor or specialist!

Key Takeaways: TMJ Exercises

The chronic pain many people experience in their TMJ can feel debilitating at times. It makes dental care more difficult and may exacerbate oral health issues like cavities, tooth sensitivity, or even gum inflammation.

However, taking steps to prevent future problems with your temporomandibular joint, such as TMJ exercises, might make all the difference.

One often missed part of this puzzle is the importance of sleep, as undiagnosed sleep apnea frequently leads to teeth grinding, which causes or aggravates TMJ pain. If you’ve tried TMJ exercises and haven’t seen improvement, talk to your dentist about signs of bruxism and consider getting a referral for a sleep study.

Read Next: What causes TMJ Pain? Symptoms, Treatments, Exercises, and More

3 References

  1. Haketa, T., Kino, K., Sugisaki, M., Takaoka, M., & Ohta, T. (2010). Randomized clinical trial of treatment for TMJ disc displacement. Journal of dental research, 89(11), 1259-1263. Abstract: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20739691
  2. Maixner, W., Diatchenko, L., Dubner, R., Fillingim, R. B., Greenspan, J. D., Knott, C., … & Slade, G. D. (2011). Orofacial pain prospective evaluation and risk assessment study–the OPPERA study. The journal of Pain, 12(11), T4-T11. Full text: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3233836/
  3. McNeely, M. L., Armijo Olivo, S., & Magee, D. J. (2006). A systematic review of the effectiveness of physical therapy interventions for temporomandibular disorders. Physical therapy, 86(5), 710-725. Abstract: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16649894

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