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Hiawatha, IA 52233

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Ask the Expert: Physical therapy for jaw pain

by -

Jaw pain
People experiencing pain in the joint that connects your jaw bone to your skull should consider physical therapy. “Often patients will notice improvements in symptoms by simply following a set of jaw tips,” says St. Luke’s Doctor of Physical Therapy Trisha Davis.

The temporomandibular joint allows you to move your jaw to talk, chew and swallow. As with any joint, pain can occur. Temporomandibular pain (also known as TMJ or TMD) is often the result of an injury to the jaw or overuse. 

Patients can have a variety of mild to debilitating symptoms and seek care from their primary care provider or dentist. Symptoms may include pain in the ear, face, neck and jaw, popping/clicking or grinding sounds in the jaw with opening and closing, and joint locking. Headaches are also common.

Pain medications, anti-inflammatories and ice are often prescribed. A conservative treatment approach that should be considered for TMJ pain is physical therapy.

Physical therapy treatment focuses on reducing pain, increasing motion and strength, and improving overall jaw function. Treatment will most often include low load exercise, posture education, stretching and manual therapy. Other treatments may include modalities (such as ultrasound for deep heating to increase mobility), dry needling, and night guards/mouth guards, in certain cases. Patient education is always provided.

“Two tips that often help reduce pain immediately are chewing soft foods evenly on both sides, including the painful side, not avoiding it,” says Davis, a licensed physical therapist with advanced training in TMJ treatment. “Chewing food on the same side as the pain actually decompresses the painful joint.”

The second tip is consuming foods that require little to no chewing (like soup or a smoothie) for two weeks to allow the jaw a rest period. “I also educate all patients in proper icing and self-massage techniques to jaw musculature to be done daily,” Davis says. “While in therapy, patients also learn to utilize visual feedback for proper jaw opening and posture. This often helps improve opening motion if it is lost.”  

UnityPoint Health – St. Luke’s Hospital has four Therapy Plus clinics that provide outpatient physical and occupational therapy for work- or non-work-related injuries and sports injuries. Davis offers 60-minute TMJ evaluations and physical therapy services at Therapy Plus - Westdale. To learn more, contact your primary care provider or call (319) 861-6900. For your convenience, TMJ treatment is also offered at Therapy Plus - Downtown. Contact Physical Therapist Cindy at (319) 369-8107. For other therapy needs, Therapy Plus also provides full services at our clinics in Hiawatha (319-369-8380) and Marion (319-286-4346).