TMJ Pain and Acupuncture

Georgetown University scientists recently demonstrated how acupuncture treatment performed on rats can decrease a protein linked to stress. This might give hope to people although a similar test has yet to be performed on humans.

For those who know a thing or two about acupuncture, they certainly are aware that it has the ability to relieve the symptoms of stress as gleaned from the thousands of anecdotal evidences collated so far. One of the more common symptoms of stress is temporomandibular joint pain or TMJ pain, which is one particular type of acupuncture can effectively address. This type is trigger-point acupuncture for TMJ pain.

TMJ pain, as you might have guessed, is the pain in the jaws that can travel throughout the ear, head and face. This type of pain has forced many to seek acupuncture treatment since they find the conventional pain therapies of pharmaceutical drugs and bite guards to be woefully inadequate for the resolution of their suffering. TMJ pain is often experienced by people suffering from severe stress.

TMJ pain is usually due to too much strain in the jaw muscles rather than caused by an actual dysfunctional joint.

Our neck and facial muscles tend to become highly stressed when we do too much work. When we are highly stressed we tend to adopt tense postures or do certain activities such as bite our nails or grind or clench our teeth which can lead to the development of sensitive nodules or trigger points that generate pain. Fortunately, acupuncture has the capacity to release these trigger points via the insertion of needles in the exact area where the affected muscle or other body parts are located.

TMJ – What Trigger Points are Involved?

Jaw pain can be caused by a number of trigger points located in the neck and facial muscles. Some of these trigger points are in the:


The masseter is often the jaw muscle the acupuncturist observes in TMJ patients. The masseter is the big muscle that juts out over the jawbone. This is the most common part of the jaw a person massages when he feels pain in the jaw. Trigger points can arise from this muscle due to bad body mechanics, too much biting of the nails, too much chewing of gum and too much teeth grinding and clenching. The masseter is especially very susceptible to stress.

Too much stress caused by desperation, intense determination and extreme emotional tension can make the masseter muscle contract and once this muscle contracts, it remains contracted for long periods of time.

When the masseter’s trigger points are activated, it can lead to pain in and around the TMJ, deep into the ear, in the eyebrow, lower and upper molars, lower jaw and in the cheeks. Since the elevation of the lower jawbone (mandible) is the main function of the masseter muscle, trigger points can make it difficult to open a person’s mouth once the points are activated. Another clue for trigger point in this muscle is the occurrence of tinnitus in a person.


The platysma is a muscle in the face that is thin and sheath-like and is attached to the jaw and the clavicle. When trigger points develop in this muscle, the jaw can experience a type of pain that is pricking and diffuse and is more felt on the surface of the face rather than internally.


When this muscle is affected, pain can be felt from the head to the arm. The trigger points in the trapezius can also cause headaches and lower jaw pain as well as pain below the ear that travels down to the area between the shoulders and the neck. People who perform computer work are the ones most likely to be affected by this type of pain. This is so because long periods of shoulder elevation can cause the development of or activate trigger points in the trapezius.


The SCM or sternocleidomastoid is composed of two muscle parts (clavicular and sterna muscles). When trigger points develop in the clavicular, it causes frontal headaches, as well as pain, that are felt more around and in the ear. When the sternal muscles are afflicted, pain above the eyebrow can be felt that can travel into the jaw and across the cheek as well on top and at the back of the head.

Lateral and Medial pterygoid

Although small, when these muscles develop trigger points, the pain can be so severe. The pain directly affects the area around the TMJ joint. The trigger points can likewise create swallowing difficulties and throat pain. The pain from trigger points in the lateral and medial pterygoid muscles can affect the region in front of the ear and can travel on the upper jaw or maxilla and higher up in the face. The lateral pterygoid’s trigger points are the main causes of myofascail pain in the TMJ region.


The temporalis’s trigger points cause pain that is similar to that of the masseter’s. People suffering from pain in the temporalis muscle complain more about headaches often affecting the head area behind the eye, along the eyebrow and on the side of the head as well as tooth pain that affect the teeth of the upper jaw and not merely the molars.

Trigger Points Aren’t the Whole Story

When all these trigger points are treated with acupuncture, it can lead to the resolution of all pain and headaches related to these trigger points. Still, acupuncture can be one among many other potential treatments for TMJ. Acupuncturists usually opt for the trigger-point acupuncture approach as it has proven to be the best type of acupuncture treatment for this type of condition.

The biomedical doctor who discovered trigger points, Janet Travell, admitted in her talk about neck and head pain that attending to trigger points in the early phase of treatment can help the patient understand that the pain comes from an organic cause that can be realistically remedied. In treating TMJ pain, an approach focusing on the trigger points is the best way to deal with this condition. Trigger-point acupuncture is probably the best solution for this type of pain.

Christina Prieto is an Orlando acupuncturist, a certified Yoga instructor and the founder of Harmony Wellness center in central Florida.

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