Perhaps in the past, as you were walking home from work one day, you may have casually noticed the asymmetrical alignment of someone's jaw. Or perhaps you have noticed this in yourself. Either way, no need to judge or panic. An asymmetrical or misaligned jaw is known as temporal mandibular junction (TMJ) disorder. Regardless of the name you would like to give this muscular imbalance, just know that it is a fairly common disorder, and there are ways to treat, and even correct this misalignment.

Why Jaw Alignment Is Important

xray of a jaw

When considering the importance of jaw alignment, it is essential to realize that everything in the body is connected. When a certain joint becomes misaligned or imbalanced in any way, the body itself becomes negatively affected. Misaligned muscles, ligaments, bones, nerves, and joints leave more potential for other secondary misalignments, and so on and so forth.

Chain Reaction of Bodily Chaos

The chain reaction of imbalance can cause all sorts of physical problems, including mental health issues. Because the jaw is directly attached to the skull, and the skull is connected to the spine, a significantly misaligned jaw has the potential for causing great bodily disorder. What it comes down to, regarding the more chronic cases, is how a misaligned jaw is affecting one's overall posture. Posture represents spinal cord alignment, and if you don't have good spinal cord alignment, what do you have? Poor spinal cord alignment could lead to one of many misalignments, including that of the following:

  • Head
  • Shoulder
  • Hip
  • Knee
  • Ankle

Other Physical Issues of a Misaligned Jaw

Besides having a potential systemic effect on one's overall posture and spinal alignment, there are many other ways the body can become affected by this disorder. Most of these problems are associated with pain:

  • Chronic headaches or migraines
  • Tinnitus
  • Facial, neck, and ear pain
  • Involuntary teeth grinding
  • Gum and tooth pain
  • Lockjaw

Jaw Alignment and Mental Health

The pain and disorder caused by certain cases of jaw misalignment is no joke. Unfortunately, these physical imbalances cause not only pain throughout the body, but mental imbalances as well. The pain and bodily discomfort associated with a misaligned jaw have the potential to cause the following mental disorders:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Other related mood disorders
  • Nervousness

Jaw Alignment and Oral Hygiene

It's also worth noting that before changes in posture or spinal alignment occur, other less detrimental, yet unwanted symptoms can also occur:

  • Change of facial shape
  • A clicking or popping jaw
  • Difficulty chewing
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Difficulty yawning
  • Speech impediments
  • "Mouth breathing" - failing to close the lips while breathing

More about the Jaw and What Can Go Wrong

woman open mouth

Whatever the underlying cause of one's misaligned jaw may be, it helps to understand the specifics of the issue on an anatomical level. That way, one can know exactly what they are facing, no pun intended.

The Jaw

Naturally, the jaw is a complex and unique combination of mostly cartilage, muscle, and bone. The muscles that allow the jaw its three-dimensional ability to move include the following:

  • Masseter
  • Temporalis
  • Medial pterygoid
  • Lateral pterygoid
  • Digastric

The Muscles of the Jaw

The first three listed muscles are attributed to the makeup of the jaw-closing muscles, while the last two listed muscles contribute to the jaw-opening muscles. Each of these individual muscles that make up the jaw has a feather-like (pennate) internal arrangement of muscle fibers.

Each jaw muscle has a synergistic relationship with the central nervous system. This allows the CNS to become capable of individually activating separate areas of the muscles fibers, thus allowing specific directions of muscle fiber movement. In layman's terms, this gives the jaw the ability to generate a wide range of force and mobility that is required for a particular jaw movement.

Mastication

The synergistic mechanism of mastication has a rhythmic movement which is influenced by the central pattern-generator in the brainstem. Sensory information from the food bolus modifies the central pattern-generator by voluntary commands from higher centers of the nervous system. Aside from analyzing the frequency of the jaw movements and how the nervous system helps these actions, the overall movement of the jaw is worth understanding as well.

To describe its overall complex motion in a simple way, jaw movements can be described as muscle rotations simultaneously going around a rotating center. Apparently, there have been many attempts of replicating this complex system of movements, but only the six-degrees-of-freedom devices can accurately compare to the jaw's actual movement. As far as devices that can accurately track these motions in order to more accurately diagnose and manage patients, there has been no such luck so far, as most devices lack the needed sensitivity and specificity.

Unfortunately, this inability to pinpoint the exact mechanical process of the jaw makes it difficult to understand completely. Despite this lack of technology, this doesn't mean certain imbalances or disorders of the jaw can't be improved.

TMJ Disorder

In most cases of misaligned jaws, an affliction known as temporomandibular joint disorder is commonly diagnosed. It gets its name from the specific jaw joint location where the mandible bone (lower jaw bone) meets the temporal bone (at the side of the skull). It is at this junction in which most cases of jaw misalignment occur.

Depending on the severity of the case, chronic tension in the muscles connected with and surrounding the disorder is what causes the pain. TMJ can also set up what is called pain referral patterns, or trigger points which are perceived differently than localized pain. Pain referral patterns are responsible for the aforementioned symptoms such as headaches, migraines, involuntary teeth grinding, and tinnitus.

What You Can do to Treat or Prevent Jaw Mis-alignment

Despite there being an incomplete understanding of how the jaw works exactly, there are ways to treat and potentially fully correct a misaligned jaw. Treatment is determined not only by the degree of the jaw misalignment but also how the imbalance occurred.

man getting punched

Misaligned Jaw Therapy from Physical Trauma

Physical trauma can be a very effective way of inducing chronic tension within the muscles of the jaw. This is usually caused by whiplash or some sudden, violent impact to the head or neck area. Jaw misalignment, in this case, can be caused by the held tension of the muscles which are considered "locked" into. This effect can be seen elsewhere within the body, but what makes this action unique to the jaw is the tension-holding potential.

It is not uncommon for the body to take weeks, months, or even years to recover from this tension.  Extra comfort and support are needed to convince the body that it is safe to unlock itself. From a clinical massage therapist's perspective, the goal is to gradually introduce this notification of safety to the body. This allows the muscles and soft tissues to eventually relax and disengage from the traumatic state. More specifically, this is done by safe, gentle, and focused muscle-manipulation known as release work.

woman meditating outside

Jaw Misalignment Therapy from Stress and Emotional Triggers

Most of us know how stress and emotions can take a toll on the body if not kept in check. When high levels of external triggers are experienced by an individual, a chronic pain pattern causing the misalignment of the jaw can occur. Some speculate that the emotional element of this scenario is the most common cause of this disorder.

There is a complex neurological pathway system between the sensory and motor nerves within the muscles, brain, and spinal cord. This pathway is accessed through the trigeminal nerve. When negative emotions cause stress, a feedback loop can occur through this pathway. This, in turn, causes the muscles of the TMJ region to contract. This contraction causes an even greater increase in emotional stress in the nervous system.

For those who are experiencing such cases of jaw misalignment, it's imperative to consider body and mind practices or other activities that promote the lowering of these emotional, stress-inducing factors. Doing so would naturally decrease the sympathetic nervous system stress and get the body one step closer to proper balance. To name a few, some of these activities may include the following:

  • Exercise
  • Yoga
  • Meditation
  • Getting out in nature
close up photo of woman with braces

Other Forms of Treatment

As mentioned previously, there are symptoms of jaw misalignment that can affect your oral health. In these cases, some patients may seek a restorative or cosmetic service from a dental practitioner. Treatments may involve braces or retainers. Depending on the severity of the symptoms, this could prove to be a wise option to consider.

Conclusion

There is still much to be discovered about the jaw. What do we know, however, is that those suffering from a misaligned jaw imbalance can be helped. No matter how severe your TMJ-related symptoms are, consider the steps listed above and seek out help from a medical professional. Don't forget, healing takes time and patience. If you respect the healing process, decide to take the proper approach, introduce good techniques, and have a positive mindset, you'll be feeling recalibrated in no time.

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