TMJ, aka the temporomandibular joint, is the huge sliding hinge joint in your jaw you might only think about when it is actively yelling at you in pain. TMJ can become inflamed and cause immense paint that compromises any movement of your jaw.
When in pain some people refer to it as “TMJ syndrome”, “TMJ dysfunction”, or even just “TMJ.” This pain not only causes discomfort but also impairs an individual’s ability to eat and talk.
One in three adults in the U.S. will experience symptoms of TMJ dysfunction sometime in their life. Maybe this pain has already been you or will be experienced by you?
Acupuncture is becoming increasingly popular as an approach to temporomandibular disorders.
Research suggests that acupuncture can suppress the pain neurons (nociceptive trigeminal nucleus caudalis and spinal dorsal horn neurons) related to the TMJ through regulation of neurotransmitters.
Through direct stimulation of the nerve, the modulation of chemicals and signals in the body helps block pain perception of the brain and reduce pain sensation.
Acupuncture is additionally found to relax muscles that may be placing an improper amount of force on the meniscus of the TMJ.
Acupuncture may uniquely reduce the pain associated with TMJ dysfunction in addition to targeting the root cause of the pain. TMJ dysfunction may be due to stress held in the muscles around the jaw. One potential route that acupuncture can provide benefit is by relaxing muscles to relieve that stress.
Acupuncture for TMJ Pain Relief and Reduction
While TMJ dysfunction can have a root cause that is imperative to be addressed, the pain also deserves attention.
Individual experiencing TMJ pain
A single-blind randomized controlled clinical study in 2007 measured the effect of acupuncture on pain responses in TMJ-related muscle pain. The researchers assigned 15 patients randomly to either receive acupuncture or sham acupuncture after clenching their teeth for 2 minutes.
After each session, pain was evaluated on an 11-point numeric rating scale, visual analog scale, and pain rating of mechanical pressure on the masseter muscle. While the sample size of the study was small, the acupuncture produced a statistically significant reduction in face pain, neck pain, and headache when compared to sham acupuncture.
A similar study that same year explored the true efficacy of acupuncture for TMJ myofascial pain. The study at the University of Manchester found real acupuncture to have a greater statistically significant clinical outcome on TMJ myofascial pain than those of sham acupuncture.
Individual experiencing TMJ pain
While immediate pain relief is beneficial, a follow-up study in 2008 evaluated acupuncture for long-term pain relief. The study checked in on TMJ disorder patients who had received acupuncture and/or interocclusal appliance therapy 18-20 years earlier. Interocclusal appliance therapy is a splint that is intended to cushion the dental bite.
While the original study was a randomized controlled study, the follow-up study only questioned those who had received the treatment. Follow-up studies are difficult to include the participants in the control group because typically those participants seek treatment after the trial.
Before treatment, 87% of participants had severe TMJ disorder symptoms. After either or both treatments, only 38% complained of severe symptoms at the follow-up. The majority of patients reported similar reductions in specific symptoms such as headache prevalence.
In 2006, an evaluation of 60 case reports revealed significant TMJ pain relief from acupuncture. Dentists in Britain submitted case reports for TMJ pain where they utilized acupuncture points of the TMJ and in the masticatory muscles and points on the neck.
The mean pain scores reduced from 7.35 before acupuncture therapy to 2.67 after therapy. A beneficial reduction was noted in 85% of patients with an average reduction in pain of 75%!
Acupuncture in Comparison to Conventional Treatments for TMJ
Current conventional treatments for TMJ dysfunction include jaw appliance therapy and surgery. Acupuncture is a far less intrusive therapy that may be used alone or alongside these conventional treatment options.
And as noted above, acupuncture can additionally support a patient to potentially avoid or reduce the need for pharmaceuticals such as NSAIDs and analgesics (opioids).
Acupuncture for TMJ Dysfunction
To evaluate acupuncture against general forms of self-care, researchers conducted a study in 2012 where they randomly assigned patients with severe TMJ pain to either partake in a traditional Chinese medicine group of a self-care group. The traditional Chinese medicine group included care specific to the patient including acupuncture, Chinese herbs, massage, and lifestyle counseling
The self-care group included jaw strengthening exercises, stress management, and cognitive behavioral therapy. After 8 weeks, the participants in the traditional Chinese medicine group reported a significantly greater relief in pain in comparison to the self-care group.
Lastly, a randomized controlled study in 2015 randomly assigned participants with TMJ dysfunction to either receive acupuncture or a splint. The study measured both pain on a visual analog scale and the range of mouth opening on a millimeter ruler.
Both therapies provided significant reduction in pain and an increase in the range of mouth opening. This study therefore, showed that acupuncture could be as effective as the splint conventional treatment.
What to do about your TMJ Pain
Any type of chronic pain can become disruptive to daily life and therefore, deserves to be addressed. Pain relief however, can be provided by multiple forms of therapy and include those that help relieve the cause to the pain in the first place. Acupuncture is one of those therapies to consider. Even dentists, such as the those in the British Dental Acupuncture Society, are utilizing the practice!