Ten million Americans suffer from temporomandibular disorder (TMD), which manifests itself as pain in the temporomandibular joint (TMJ). If you've ever had it yourself, you know that it can cause extreme discomfort and tenderness in your jaw, ear, and neck along with difficulty chewing. I became one of those 10 million people about two years ago when I suddenly started having intense jaw and neck pain from unconsciously clenching my jaw.
While tension-relieving exercises and even a professional TMJ massage brought temporary relief, the discomfort was relentless, and I'd still wake up in pain on most mornings. Until I tried acupuncture.
Getting to know the underlying causes of jaw pain.
So what causes the TMD, you ask? It turns out that people under stress or with anxiety will unconsciously clench their jaw or grind their teeth at night, which places stress on the jaw joint. While it's not totally clear why certain people have TMD, stress and anxiety are known to contribute to the problem.
After spending hours on the internet searching for relief, I had started reading about how acupuncture could help treat pain from jaw clenching. The discomfort was a real mood killer at this point, so, without any hesitation, I made an appointment at a traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) health center. The TCM practitioner patiently heard my complaints and then confidently informed me that she could help.
How acupuncture works—and why it works for TMD.
Turns out, there is real science behind her confidence, and countless studies on acupuncture show that it can reduce symptoms of TMD. One study indicates that 84 percent of patients reported improvement in pain after their first acupuncture visit, whereas 87 percent that received NSAIDs showed no noticeable improvement. TMD has proved to be difficult to treat with conventional medical treatments, but luckily, acupuncture shows a lot of promise.
Even our very own Paige Bourassa, MSTOM, L.Ac., RHN, from the mbg Collective, says, "As far as relief from TMD and neck pain, yes, acupuncture can be incredibly effective. We treat a large number of neck and jaw pain cases on a regular basis at the practice and get great results with that, plus recommending a couple other key lifestyle practices."
Acupuncture helped my jaw pain, and it might help yours, too.
While the exact way acupuncture relieves pain from TMD is not 100 percent clear, according to traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture works by restoring the flow of energy, also known as chi. Modern research also suggests that it "reduces pain sensation through direct stimulation of the nerve, which changes the quality of signaling along nerve cells."
When specifically treating pain from TMD, needles are inserted where the pain is located, around the ear and the jaw. From my personal experience, the moment the needle is inserted into the ST 7 Xiaguan acupuncture point, I can feel the relief, almost instantly. When the needle punctures the skin, there's a tiny prick, but that's the extent of any discomfort during the treatment.
Two appointments later, the jaw pain subsided and I even stopped unconsciously clenching as intensely. While every individual reacts differently to acupuncture, for me it's the only thing that has relieved my jaw and neck pain. So while I'll always be susceptible to reverting to clenching, acupuncture provides the only real relief that lasts.
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