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Physical Therapy for Temporomandibular Disorders

Treatment Overview

A physical therapist can develop a program for you that includes learning and practicing techniques for regaining normal jaw movement.

The focus of physical therapy for temporomandibular disorders (TMDs) is relaxation, stretching, and releasing tight muscles and scar tissue. Physical therapy is an especially important part of recovery from TM joint surgery, as it helps minimize scar tissue formation and muscle tightness.

Physical therapy techniques may include:

  • Jaw exercises to strengthen muscles and improve flexibility and range of motion.
  • Heat therapy to improve blood circulation in the jaw.
  • Ice therapy to reduce swelling and relieve pain.
  • Massage to relieve overall muscle tension.
  • Training to improve posture and correct jaw alignment.
  • Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS), which is the application of a mild electrical current to the skin over the jaw joint. This electrical current is thought to interfere with the body's pain signals. TENS relaxes muscles, improves blood circulation, and relieves pain. The effectiveness of TENS varies, but it seems to work for some people.
  • Movement of the temporomandibular (TM) joint to release scar tissue that restricts muscle movement and to improve range of motion.
  • Ultrasound therapy, which uses high-frequency sound waves directed to the TM joint, to reduce pain and swelling and improve circulation.

What To Expect After Treatment

After a physical therapy session, you should rest the jaw, try to control habits that cause jaw pain, and avoid chewing foods that stress the joint.

Why It Is Done

Physical therapy:

  • Is frequently used in combination with medicine, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or muscle relaxants.
  • May be recommended if symptoms are not relieved with home treatment and are related to muscle tension.
  • Is used after surgery to promote healing and reduce pain and swelling.

How Well It Works

Physical therapy is important to the success of both surgical and nonsurgical treatments for TMDs.1

Risks

Any therapy that involves physical movement of the jaw may make joint problems worse. And this therapy must be done by an experienced professional.

What To Think About

Do not begin physical therapy and jaw exercises to improve jaw range of motion until your doctor has determined what type of TM joint problem you have and what jaw structures are affected.

Complete the special treatment information form (PDF)special treatment information form (PDF)(What is a PDF document?) to help you understand this treatment.

References

Citations

  1. Scrivani SJ, et al. (2008). Temporomandibular disorders. New England Journal of Medicine, 359(25): 2693–2705.

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Adam Husney, MD - Family Medicine
Arden Christen, DDS, MSD, MA, FACD - Dentistry
Last Revised January 11, 2012

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