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Acupuncture and TMJ

TMJ Disorder (Temporomandibular Joint Dysfunction) involves inflammation and contraction at the joint where the jaw hinges to the skull. There are more than three million cases in the U.S. per year and can affect people to the point where they suffer from facial pain and chronic headaches. Other symptoms include difficulty chewing, toothache, jaw joint tenderness or cracking, facial muscle spasms and joint locking. The exact cause of this dysfunction can be difficult to determine, but emotional stress, jaw injury or arthritis are often identified. Conventional treatment strategies generally include stress management and relaxation techniques, splints or nightguards, muscle relaxants or over-the-counter NSAIDS.

Besides these forms of treatments, acupuncture can and often quite successfully corrects the dysfunction. The question is how? Acupuncture is a 5000 year old Chinese medical therapy. Around 2500 years ago, the Chinese started to formulate the practice of needling into a system that is based off of an in-depth study of anatomy and centuries of trial and error. The Chinese discovered that where large bundles of nerves, blood vessels and junctions of muscle-sinew come together, those areas could be powerfully affected through needling. Those areas became acupuncture points. Needling those areas creates the following internal changes:

  • Local decrease of inflammation

  • Boost of immune system

  • Increased local blood flow that helps nourish damage tissue

  • Decrease local muscle contraction

  • Increased endorphin levels (hormones that dim pain in the body)

  • Increased dopamine and serotonin levels (hormones that decrease emotional stress)

  • Increased vasodilation (opening of the cardiovascular vessels)

  • Increased parasympathetic nervous system response (AKA our rest and relaxed physical/emotional state)

How does this affect TMJ? By utilizing acupuncture points therapeutically, an acupuncturist can decrease the levels of local inflammation in the jaw joint, promote healing to any damaged tissue, relax the jaw and surrounding muscles, increase endorphins that temporarily circulate around the body for three days (thus, allowing the patient to feel less pain while the joint heals) and reduces stress that can exacerbate the issue.

Case Study

G.S. is a 45 year old woman in a very stressful job position as head of an accounting department. Within the last two years, she had developed pain and clicking at both sides of her jaw joint with the right side being severe and the left side being mild. Additionally, she takes ibuprofen two times a day to handle daily right temple headaches. She has worn a night guard for the last month and currently takes muscle relaxants at night, both of which she reports has not helped her symptoms. She has problems with sleep where she can fall asleep, but wakes up at 3am and has a hard time getting back to sleep. She reports that she does not dream often, but when she does, her dreams are not pleasant and related sometimes to work.

Acupuncture points used: ST4 through ST9, GB21, LI4, Ce San Lis, GB34, LR3, HT7, Ear Shenmen

Ancillary Treatments: Electro-stimulation on ST4, ST7 and GB21, Neck/Jaw Massage and Guasha

Herbal Prescription: Suan Zao Ren Tang

Results: After eight treatments done twice a week for a month, G.S. reported that her headaches and jaw pain on left side are gone. She reports her jaw pain on the right side is on and off instead of constant and rates the pain at 1-2/10. She is sleeping through the night and feels less stressed at work. After four more treatments done once a week for the next month, G.S. reports no more jaw pain. She continues treatment once a month to help with stress management.

Research Studies:

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