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  • Writer's pictureMegan Cottrell

Craniosacral Therapy for TMJ/TMD: Finding Relief and Realignment Through Unwinding Tension

Updated: Sep 25, 2023

Pain, tenderness, aching jaw, locking joints… Temporomandibular joint disorders, better known as TMJ or TMD, can be extremely painful and debilitating for those who suffer from them. While many dental treatments exist, such as mouth guards, splits, injections and surgeries, there is another option: craniosacral therapy.

Having had TMJ for 20 years, CSTGR client Christina Trahey knows both the pain of TMJ and the relief of craniosacral therapy for her symptoms well. Although she wears a bite split, Christina says combining traditional treatment with craniosacral creates dramatic improvement in her symptoms.

“For TMJ you really need more than one thing in order to help you. If my jaw is clicking, craniosacral takes that away. It helps me open my mouth wider. It helps with pain. It’s amazing!” says Christina.

Craniosacral therapy can yield dramatic results with TMJ or TMD because of its ability to restore balance to the neurological system and unwind tension within the bones of the skull, neck and spine that cause the misalignments that lead to chronic tension and pain. Often clients come in to a session with a locked jaw, barely able to eat or talk. At the end of their session, they leave feeling so much better and seeing dramatic improvements in their physical capabilities.

“Craniosacral has helped me the most with my TMJ, but also helps me with headaches, upper neck pain and lower back pain,” says Christina. “I definitely recommend it for part of your TMJ journey!”

Direct and Indirect Causes of TMJ and TMD

Every patient with TMJ/TMD has their own unique combination of causes and underlying factors, but in general, the pain associated with TMJ/TMD is caused by some combination of misalignment in the bones of the skull, jaw, or teeth, sometimes caused or exacerbated by tension in the surrounding muscles or ligaments.

John Upledger, founder of Craniosacral Therapy, explains the complex system underlying our jaw function:

The bones of the skull most directly involved with the temporomandibular joints are the temporal bones and the mandible. In the case of TMJ dysfunction, the temporals are the most likely offenders directly related to craniosacral system dysfunctions. The temporomandibular joints are located two-to-four centimeters anterior to each temporal bone's axis of rotation. Because of that articulating relationship, they are commonly involved in TMJ problems. Since the joint surfaces of the temporal bones are located in eccentric positions, when the temporal bone or bones are restricted into asymmetrical positions in relationship to one another, they provide malaligned joint surfaces for the temporomandibular joints on both sides. This malalignment results in mandibular imbalance and undue wear and stress upon the joints.

In addition to restrictions in the temporal bones, imbalances in the mandible, the jaw bone, such as tension or distortion on one side, can cause problems on the other. Misalignment or restriction in the bones of the hard palate can also cause the teeth not to be properly aligned, contributing to TMJ problems.

But while the relationships between these complex bones and muscular systems can be directly related to TMJ/TMD, Upledger says the disorder can also be the “tip of the iceberg,” pointing to more systemic problems in the body, such as the overall effect of stress on the body and a neurological system stuck in fight or flight.

Clenching your jaw or teeth can be a response to chronic stress, often associated with poor vagal tone. The vagus nerve is a long nerve that winds through the body and is an important component of our parasympathetic nervous system, the part of your nervous system that brings your body back to baseline after a stressful or flight response. The higher your vagal tone, the more easily your body can relax after a stressful event. Low vagal tone means your body struggles to go back to baseline, leaving you in a permanently stressed state.

How Craniosacral Can Help TMJ/TMD

Craniosacral therapy is an on-the-body therapy that uses light pressure, cradling the head, neck, sacrum and joints of the body. As we’ve explained in greater detail in some of our other posts, craniosacral primarily works on three main systems of the body, the musculoskeletal system, the central nervous system and the cerebrospinal fluid. All three of these systems are often at play in TMJ/TMD and jaw pain.

CST works directly with the musculoskeletal system to gently realign the bones and unwind tension, unhooking the tension within tissues, starting by working from where the therapist finds the body willing to release tension and continuing in the direction of ease, rather than trying to force the body into the desired pattern.

By going the direction of ease, we allow the tissues to unwind themselves and then enable the tissues to go where we were hoping to increase range of motion in the first place. TMJ and jaw pain often come from underlying tension patterns that have been built for years and are symptoms of the body trying to protect itself from trauma. By working in the direction of ease, we can try to unwind these tension patterns without provoking a stress response from the body, which leads to more tension.

Although TMJ/TMD can be caused directly by joint function, poor joint function can also be caused by chronic stress and tension within the body. By working to calm the central nervous system, CST can also help TMJ sufferers by helping their body release the state of fight or flight and allowing the whole body to rest, allowing the jaw and teeth to relax.

In addition, craniosacral therapy helps improve the flow of cerebrospinal fluid in the central nervous system, washing the brain and removing the build up of waste products. Scientists are just beginning to understand the connection between waste products in the cerebrospinal fluid and disease. Craniosacral helps improve the flow of the cerebrospinal fluid by unlocking points of tension that keep it from doing its job. Once the fluid is able to flow as intended, the body can remove waste products and the central nervous system functions better. This, in turn, allows the body to manage stress in a more healthy way, leading to less jaw tension and less pain.

What is a CST session like for TMJ/TMD? How many treatments will I need?

If you’re used to invasive dental interventions or strenuous massage of overworked muscles, you might be surprised by the gentle, relaxing nature of craniosacral therapy. After making an appointment, the therapist will take time to hear about your medical history and ask questions about your symptoms.

Although Christina has been seeing other therapists who use craniosacral therapy for many years, it was only three years ago that she found Kelly O’Brien Pahman at Craniosacral Center of Grand Rapids.

“Kelly specializes in craniosacral, and she’s the best one I’ve seen so far,” says Christina. “I’ve gotten the most relief with Kelly. It’s amazing. She’s amazing!

During the treatment, you’ll lie on the therapist’s table, fully clothed, under blankets or not, depending on your preference. The therapist will begin by gently cradling parts of your spine, applying less than 5 grams of pressure or the weight of a nickel, moving to different parts of the body. In subsequent treatments, depending on where the therapist finds tension, he or she may do gentle work inside the mouth with gloves on, allowing the bones of the jaw or palate to relax and find proper alignment. All of this is done with a close eye to the patient’s comfort and willingness, working with the body, rather than against it.

Because the patterns of tension in the body have built up over years, it often takes a number of treatments to see lasting relief. However, most clients will notice a difference within one or two treatments, with less pain and better sleep. You can find out more about the length of a treatment plan and payment options and insurance in our blog post How Much Does Craniosacral Therapy Cost?. Your therapist will work with you to develop a treatment plan that works for your life. Often, that treatment plan will recommend more frequent sessions at the beginning of treatment, lengthening the amount of time between treatments as symptoms improve.

When pursuing treatment for jaw pain or TMJ, you might be surprised by the emotions that come out when treating the pain. So many of us tighten our jaw in response to stress, and many people find those emotions come out when releasing the physical tension. Although surprising, this is normal, and since Kelly has experienced this herself, she’s ready and able to support clients through that part of the journey as well.

Book a Craniosacral Therapy Appointment for TMJ/TMD and Jaw Pain

If you’d like to book an appointment with the Craniosacral Center of Grand Rapids to address your concerns about TMJ/TMD or chronic jaw pain, you can do so by using our online appointment scheduler or calling us at (616) 433-3003. We look forward to seeing you in the office and helping you find relief!

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