It all started with a strange fullness in my right ear. It came on rather suddenly and felt like a clogged ear that I couldn’t clear through the usual means of swallowing, yawning, or plugging my nose shut and blowing out. After a few weeks, I started noticing a dull headache and intense head pressure accompanying this ear fullness, which caused my anxiety to spike. Migraines? Allergies? Something stuck in my ear canal? A brain tumor?
Eventually, I sought out medical help and learned that my laundry list of strange symptoms had one unexpected diagnosis: TMJ, also known as temporomandibular joint disorder (and sometimes also abbreviated TMD). In addition to the symptoms I was experiencing, TMJ can cause pain behind the eyes, sensitivity to sunlight, ear pain, and even difficulty swallowing.
Here’s what I’ve learned about this surprisingly common condition, including what you can do at home to find relief.
- ABOUT OUR EXPERTS: Matt Van Auken, M.D., M.P.H., is a quadruple-board certified integrative physician. Kevin Huffman, D.O., is a physician, TMJ expert, and the founder of Ambari Nutrition. Anastasia Stocker, N.D., L.Ac., is a naturopath and the founder of Aria Integrative Medicine. Bill Dorfman, D.D.S., is a Beverly Hills-based cosmetic dentist.
What Is TMJ?
TMJ is a painful condition of one or both temporomandibular joints, where the lower jaw (mandible) connects with a fossa, or depression, in the temporal bone, explains quadruple-board certified integrative physician Matt Van Auken, M.D., M.P.H.
Many people associate TMJ with symptoms like jaw and cheek pain as well as clicking or popping sounds, but they are often just the tip of the iceberg. “There are a lot of key structures around this area, including the bones themselves, a joint capsule with a disc and joint fluid, multiple muscles, cranial nerve branches, arteries, veins, and more,” says Van Auken. “Dysfunction or stress in any of these structures can inflame the others nearby and produce local jaw pain at rest and with chewing, headaches, earaches, grinding or popping sensations, and other symptoms.”
Read More: 8 Natural Ways To Prevent Headaches
TMJ is unfortunately quite common, affecting as much as 31 percent of adults and 11 percent of kids, according to a recent study published in Clinical Oral Investigations. Yet, due to the wide range of symptoms and varying manifestations of TMJ, it can be quite difficult for someone to recognize they have it, notes physician Kevin Huffman, D.O., founder of Ambari Nutrition. “A patient might link headaches with stress or attribute stiff necks to poor sleeping habits—neglecting the possibility that these symptoms could signify trouble within the temporomandibular joint,” he says.
Thankfully, TMJ can be treated once identified. While the necessary course of action will vary depending on the severity of the condition, there are many natural, at-home solutions you can turn to for relief. Here are seven tried-and-true natural remedies for TMJ that experts recommend, many of which have helped me.
1. Engage in jaw exercises
If you’re suffering from TMJ symptoms, the last thing you might want to do is move your jaw more, given that constant movement is often what exacerbates symptoms. However, simple opening and closing movements, side-to-side actions, and gentle jaw stretches can actually enhance joint mobility, strengthen the muscles of the jaw, and alleviate pain related to TMJ, Huffman points out. Research backs up this theory, with one International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health study finding jaw exercises to be more effective than jaw splints at reducing TMJ symptoms more quickly.
“To incorporate this remedy into your treatment: commence with a slow and gentle approach; then, as your comfort level permits, gradually intensify the process,” he says. For best results, check in with your specialist for specific exercises and instructions, which may vary depending on your unique case.
2. Try heat or cold therapy
Employing heat and cold have both been shown to be effective in alleviating TMJ pain, so consider them your best friends during flare-ups. “Heat can help relieve pain associated with TMJ by enhancing blood flow and relaxing muscles,” explains Huffman. “Equally, cold offers an analgesic effect, serving to reduce inflammation and numb the pain.” For optimal relief, he recommends trying a consistent alternation between the two modalities—heat and ice—throughout the day. “Always ensure heat or ice packs are enveloped in cloth, as this step is crucial to prevent damage to your skin,” he says.
3. Get stress under control
Simple as it may sound, keeping your stress levels down can significantly reduce TMJ symptoms. You see, when you’re stressed, you tend to tense your muscles, including the four main muscles in your jaw: your temporalis, masseter, medial pterygoid, and lateral pterygoid muscles, explains Huffman. This may cause you to clench your jaw or grind your teeth, especially when sleeping.
To alleviate this, Huffman recommends incorporating certain stress-relieving techniques such as yoga, meditation, and deep breathing regularly to keep stress levels in a healthy place. “These practices not only help reduce stress but also promote muscle relaxation,” he says.
Your supplement routine can also help keep excess stress at bay. The adaptogenic herb ashwagandha, which can help reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol, for example, can support feelings of relaxation and calm, notes naturopath Anastasia Stocker, N.D., L.Ac., founder of Aria Integrative Medicine. “Cortisol is also a key hormone in the circadian rhythm, so, by balancing cortisol levels, ashwagandha supports sleep quality in individuals previously awoken by TMJ symptoms like teeth grinding.” Not a fan of ashwagandha? Use this guide to find another supplement that can help your body manage stress.
4. Change up your diet
No need to switch to the latest fad diet here; the diet changes that can be helpful for TMJ are less about macros and micros and more about the texture of the food you’re eating. After all, the act of chewing can play a role in worsening TMJ symptoms. That’s why many practitioners recommend adopting a soft-food diet and avoiding excessively chewy or hard foods to help minimize strain on the jaw joint when you’re dealing with TMJ flare-ups. Soup, yogurt, cottage cheese, oatmeal, and smoothies are all good go-to’s.
“Additionally, cutting back on habits like gum chewing can help alleviate symptoms,” says Beverly Hills-based cosmetic dentist Bill Dorfman, D.D.S.
5. Consider acupuncture
This traditional Chinese medicinal practice involves inserting ultra-thin needles into various points on the body to help alleviate pressure and stimulate balance—and it’s been shown to be effective for TMJ. While the exact mechanisms of success have not been well-established, the theory is that acupuncture increases blood flow to the areas affected by TMJ (namely the jaw joints), helping relieve pain and tension. Acupuncture has also been known to reduce stress, so it can potentially help those with TMJ via that route, as well.
6. Get a buccal massage
While your usual massage spans the major muscles of the entire body, a buccal massage is specifically performed on the muscles inside the mouth, especially the cheek and jaw area. Always performed by a trained massage therapist, esthetician, or other medical professional, buccal massage has been shown to help alleviate tension in the muscles surrounding the temporomandibular joint, explains Huffman. As with any form of massage, buccal massage also comes with the added benefit of providing stress relief, which can also help contribute to a reduction in TMJ symptoms.
7. Straighten Out Your posture
Last but certainly not least, maintaining proper posture—especially in the neck and shoulders—can contribute to reduced tension in the jaw muscles, notes Dorfman. “Since the muscles in the neck and shoulders are interconnected with those involved in the temporomandibular joint, poor posture can lead to increased tension which, in turn, strains the jaw muscles,” he explains. “This contributes to TMJ issues such as jaw pain, headaches, and difficulty in jaw movement.”
Your move: Be as mindful of your posture as possible at work or during activities that involve prolonged sitting, Dorfman suggests. If you can make any ergonomic adjustments (like changing your seat height or switching to a standing desk), do it. Need some extra help? These exercises work to improve your posture.