Don’t panic, but stress is making your face wonky

Stiff neck? Permanently locked jaw? Shooting pain when you open your mouth? TMD could explain it all.

We all know that technology isn’t always great for you. In fact, it can outright make you sick. From headphone-related hearing loss, to social media kicking your self-esteem and blue light affecting your sleep, all the bad stats should make you want to detox permanently – except that we don’t.

But what if it was affecting your face? What if all that scrolling was making one side of your jaw bulge, and your neck permanently stiff? Well, for 12 per cent of the population (including me) – it is and does. And its name is TMD.

Why does my jaw hurt?

For about ten years now I’ve woken up with what I call a “clicky” jaw. Sounds a bit cute, right? But in reality, I would open my mouth each morning to a cacophony of crunchy bone cracking, sometimes accompanied by a stabbing pain where my jaw meets my ear. Less cute.

I was aware that this was probably not normal, but my dentist (who I thought was the person you see for this stuff) told me I didn’t grind my teeth so I just put up with it… for ten years. That was, until I went to see the incredible Valli at Herbario Clinic, who not only detoxed my skin, but managed to tame my jaw into something that actually looked like definition.

Up until that point, I had not realised how lopsided my face was, and I had never had a name for why it was so. But now I did: TMJ.

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What is TMJ?

Of course, it was only a solo treatment so I wasn’t magically cured, but it did inspire me to discover more about the condition, which led me to someone who is very familiar TMJ: Darron Goralsky the Principal Physiotherapist and Clinical Director of Melbourne TMJ & Facial Pain Centre.

He explains, “TMJ stands for Temporo Mandibular Joint (jaw joint). Conditions involving this joint and related structures are referred to as TMD or temporomandibular disorder. Symptoms can include jaw pain or stiffness, clicking of your jaw joint, teeth clenching or grinding or even jaw locking.”

Headaches, blocked ears, neck stiffness and even brain fog are also associated symptoms… so basically everything I had been living with for ten years.

What causes TMD?

This next point will probably come as no surprise either: some of the most common causes can include poor posture thanks to tech usage – specifically mobiles and laptops – and even bad sleeping posture.

Essentially anything that overuses, or puts more strain on the jaw, head and neck muscles creates what Darron calls “mechanical stress” on the joint, which is then exacerbated by stress and stress related habits like teeth clenching and nail biting.

“Stress hormones lead to an increase in muscle tension. The body is not able to fully relax including at night so there is no opportunity for real rest and restorative sleep. Stress can also lead to more clenching, further loading jaw and related structures,” he says.

If you’re reading this and nodding along, you’re not alone. Darron says that TMD affects an estimated 12 per cent of the population, and most of those are females. And our Instagram addictions may just be the reason why, as we’re using devices longer in increasingly worse postural positions (like, say, contorted on the lounge as you watch The Bachelor).

Can you fix TMD?

So, was I a complete rookie for thinking this was something a dentist would fix? Not completely.

Darron says that historically dentists were (and often still are) tasked with the treatment for TMD, however, as the jaw joint is functionally connected to the head and neck it’s something that also falls within the scope of Physiotherapists. The problem is that many are not being taught how to manage it.

It was this lack of understanding that motivated him to create his own approach (The Goralsky Craniomandibular Method), which considers not just the jaw, but its connection to the head, neck and also any biopsychosocial factors. Treatment too is also more holistic combining gentle (tolerable) manipulation of the jaw and neck with postural education and rehabilitative exercises.

“Our treatment can be very effective to the point of patients becoming symptoms free over time,” he says, “and most experience at least a 50 per cent reduction in their symptoms in only five to six treatments.”

But, if it’s stress and tech related… can you really be “cured” of TMD? Well that answer is complicated. Because, yes it can be improved and managed with treatment however, if you don’t fundamentally change the behaviours and habits that caused it there is always a chance of recurrence – so dedication to your treatment plan is key.

At home, this requires retraining your habits, including assessing your sleeping position and pillow setup to allow the neck and jaw to be in a position of rest. Darron also suggests avoiding excessively chewy food and “hot packs, stretches for the neck and gentle self-massage techniques to the face and temples.”

If you’re looking for a quick fix, unfortunately you’re not going to find one with TMD. To get the best results, you’ll need to embrace a holistic approach – one that looks after your body and your mind. Addressing the physical (through professional treatment) and correcting things such as posture will of course have a big impact as it will allow your body to tolerate stress better so you are less likely to become symptomatic.

However, dealing with the underlying stress that got you there to begin with, is equally important. So getting involved with practices such as mindfulness or meditation will not only help your head (and your blood pressure!) but it may just help to straighten out your face too.