How can a sleeping position cause TMJ problems?
One of the most common things people who experience TMJ problems say is, “I didn’t do anything to cause it”.
Well, sleeping posture may be one of the most common ways of aggravating your TMJ.
One of the laws of physics is that “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” What this means is that any amount of force or pressure that goes one way goes the exact opposite way at the same time.
When you sleep, the #1 force that your body is subjected to is the force of gravity. Let’s say for a moment that you are a side-sleeper and that the right side of your face (and jaw) are pressing into the pillow.
So what it means is that the amount of force caused by the weight of your head that pushes down into your pillow is ALSO pushing back up into your head … and if your point of contact if your jaw, BINGO! you can see how the simple weight of your head can create pressure that causes a TMJ problem.
However, that’s only the start of it. And that is because there are many more things besides just your jaw that can cause a TMJ problem when you sleep.
In my experience, the #1 thing that can create a TMJ problem from a sleeping position is your neck.
How can a neck problem cause TMJ problems?
Your neck, aka cervical spine, is comprised of 7 vertebrae that are built to offer a tremendous amount of flexibility.
The greatest amount of movement occurs between the vertebrae at the top of your neck, called the atlas (C1) and axis (C2) vertebrae. However, the trade for having such great flexibility is that they are also most susceptible to stretching or repetitive stress injuries (RSI).
A repetitive stress injury is any injury that occurs from overusing a certain part of your body beyond its normal limits. When it comes to your neck, I think you can appreciate any number of possible things that can cause RSI injuries when you are awake:
Really, it’s anything where you are able to lunge your head or neck forwards.
If you are a side-sleeper - especially if you like to curl into a ball in the fetal position - you may also be sticking your head forwards the exact same way when you sleep!
In other words, even though you are lying down, you are still straining your neck in all the same bad angles that you do when you are awake. So even though the rest of your body may get a rest, your neck doesn’t.
The problem is when you wake with a stiff or sore neck … or worse, when your muscles seize and spasm, and you can’t move your head.
These are all sure-fire signs that you are severely affecting your neck when you sleep. And although your pillow may have something to do with it, the most likely culprit is a problem with your sleeping posture.
So what does all this have to do with your TMJ?
In brief, there is an intimate relationship between the orientation of your TMJ and the alignment of the atlas (C1) and axis (C2) vertebrae in your upper neck.
Structurally, they are designed to sit in the same plane relative to each other. However, if you are sleeping with your neck twisted one way and your TMJ being pressed in the opposite direction, this can be quite a bad thing not only for your muscles but also for your nerves.
In our own practice, we have met many people who fell asleep feeling 100% fine, but then waking with a variety of neck/TMJ-related conditions:
- headaches or migraines
- TMJ pain
- Trigeminal neuralgia
- Numbness or tingling in the face or hands
- Neck spain or spasm
So when the alignment of your neck goes one way, and then the position of your TMJ goes the other, this is potentially a very bad combination!
Can a neck or TMJ problem go away on its own?
Yes, but not always.
One of the principles that we believe in our practice is that the body is a self-healing, self-regulating mechanisms. In other words, your body is capable of healing itself.
However, when certain combinations of events happen either due to physical injuries or repetitive stress injuries that are beyond your body’s ability to adapt, that is when there will be longer-term problems.
These instances are also the times when people will need medical or health assistance from a qualified professional.
However, one of the challenges especially when people experience TMJ conditions is that unless they are experiencing acute pain, they usually don’t do anything about it for months, years, or sometimes decades after dealing with the problem.
The consequence is that it often takes much longer to heal.
So why don’t certain types of problems with the TMJ or upper neck just fix themselves?
It may well have to do with the architecture of the joints involved.
Your TMJ has a small but dense piece of cartilage between the bony surfaces that allow your mouth to smoothly glide open-and-closed. It is not dissimilar from the cartilage in your knees.
Your upper neck is unique in your spine because there are no discs between the vertebrae to limit their movement. Instead, their movement is guided by the orientation of the joints themselves and the ligaments that support their structure.
In either instance, if the ligaments in either your TMJ or your upper neck are ever injured (again, through receptive stress or physical injury), they may compromise the normal movement of those joints.
When that happens, things can start to click or grind as they move, potentially causing them even to get stuck in the wrong position. And when that happens, your body recruits your muscles to try to correct the problem.
However, if those muscles are not able to unjam the problem on their own, then you may start to experience chronic muscle tension and pain around the TMJ or the base of your skull.
You may even believe that your problem is just “tight muscles,” when the truth is that the muscles are only responding to an underlying problem with the alignment in your upper neck or TMJ. And until that underlying problem is addressed, the problems may only persist.
Why types of treatment can help TMJ and neck problems?
Before continuing, I want to express a simple but important concept that relates to the many types of health problems that people can experience:
Physical solutions can help with physical problems. Chemical solutions can help with chemical problems. And emotional solutions can help emotional problems.
However, a chemical solution cannot solve a physical problem. Or any other combination. So, we need to understand from the get-go that chemical management (e.g., painkillers, anti-inflammatories) may help to reduce the sensation of pain, but cannot solve the underlying physical problem.
And that is because many forms of neck and TMJ problems are physical in origin, and thus require a physical solution.
True, stress and emotional distress may make things worse, but even these triggers are usually only the tip of the iceberg that only aggravates the underlying physical issues.
So what types of physical treatments are there that may be able to help with TMJ and neck problems?
Well, some of the more common ones include things like dentistry, chiropractic, physiotherapy, acupuncture, massage therapy, or a combination of all the above.
There is also a time-and-place for each of these treatments, depending on the nature of the underlying TMJ or neck condition.
It’s to help thee types of people - the ones who are experiencing a TMJ problem and don’t know what to do OR the ones who have been experiencing a TMJ problem and have tried everything but haven’t experienced any relief - that we aim to help in our practice with a unique form of healthcare known as Blair upper cervical care...
Blair upper cervical care is a unique brand of chiropractic that focuses on the alignment and movement of the upper v vertebrae in your neck (the atlas and axis), and how problems here can create issues in the TMJ, nerve system, and elsewhere in the body.
By correcting these types of issues, a Blair upper cervical chiropractic doctor is working to help restore the body’s normal healing capabilities so that it is able to function as it is designed: naturally, and without drugs or surgery.
Unlike general spinal manipulation, a Blair upper cervical correction does not involve any twisting, cracking, or popping either the neck or TMJ.
The approach is built on precision, involving specifical physical and neurological tests to deliver an adjustment - designed just for you - for the purpose of achieving the greatest potential for positive change with the least amount of force or intervention possible.
Blair upper cervical care and TMJ near me?
We hope that you have found this article to be both informative and valuable.
If you have been experiencing either a new or chronic TMJ issue - especially if you have noticed a link between your TMJ and your sleeping position - we hope we may be able to assist you.
Our practice, Atlas Health, is the premier Blair upper cervical health centre in Australia. Located in North Lakes (north Brisbane), our practice helps people from across Brisbane, Queensland, and around Australia, who experience a variety of health conditions, induing TMJ problems.
Our principal, Dr. Jeffrey Hannah, is an advanced certified Blair practitioner with over 10 years of experience. He is a published author, speaker, international lecturer, and recognised leader in the field of Blair upper cervical chiropractic.
If you would like to schedule a complementary 15-minute over the phone consultation with Dr. Hannah to discuss your particular case and to ask any questions so that you can decide if Blair upper cervical care may be right for you, we would like to hear from you.
You can contact our practice through the Contact Us, or you can call us direct at our office: 07 3188 9329.
We look forward to hearing from you and will endeavour to do our best to assist you.
Atlas Health Australia - “Hope, healing, and wellbeing from above-down, inside out.”
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