Tight, Swollen Neck Muscles? Your TMJ Might Be To Blame

Written byTMJ Relief

Do you have TMJ pain?

It could be your sternocleidomastoid muscle.

The Temporomandibular Joint, or TMJ, is considered one of the most complicated joints in the human body.

It is estimated to open and close up to 2000 times per day.

The TMJ is a primary component in breathing, chewing, swallowing, talking and yawning, so pain and dysfunction in this area can have extensive impact.

The sternocleidomastoid (SCM for short) is one of the main pain areas and/or contributors.

HELPFUL TIP: One thing we tried recently (with great results) was massaging magnesium oil directly into the TMJ joint and SCM muscle. The brand we tried is called PURE Magnesium Oil Spray but any 100% brand should work.

To fully comprehend the complex nature of the temporomandibular joint, we must delve deeper into understanding the anatomy of the area.

The TMJ is a hinge joint formed by the articulation of the mandible with the temporal bone of the skull.

A bony prominence off the temporal bone, called the mastoid process, can be easily felt directly behind the earlobe.

It is located posterior and slightly inferior to the external auditory meatus, also known as the ear canal.

The primary function of the mastoid process is as an attachment site for the cervical, or neck, and jaw muscles.

One muscle that attaches to the mastoid process of the temporal bone is the sternocleidomastoid muscle, often referred to as the SCM.

The SCM muscle originates at both the sternum and clavicle, traversing the neck to the mastoid process.

It is relatively superficial, yet a primary mover and stabilizer of the neck.

Present bilaterally, the SCM muscle participates, to some degree, in every cervical plane of movement: Flexion, extension, rotation and lateral flexion.

All muscles in the body can be injured, torn, or strained.

Muscles can also have increased tension from acute or chronic microtrauma, repetitive stress or overuse.

This tension can involve virtually the entire muscle, causing hypertonicity throughout the muscle.

Alternatively, it can impact a discrete, focal area of the muscle, making that area irritated and inflamed.

SCM and TMJ trigger points

These regions of hyperirritability in a muscle are known as Trigger Points.

Muscular trigger points often produce persistent pain at their site.

They also may cause pain to refer, in a distinct pattern, distal to the trigger point.

Each muscle has a distinct and unique referral pattern allowing pain to radiate to a site away from the muscle itself.

Chronic trigger points have been linked to a decreased range of motion in the affected muscle.

The sternocleidomastoid muscles are subjected to possible trigger points in all aspects of the muscle.

SCM trigger points may trigger jaw and tooth pain, as well as headaches, face and neck pain.

Trigger points within a tight sternocleidomastoid muscle tend to generate secondary trigger points within the masseter muscle groups.

The unique pathway and nerve supply of the SCM muscle allows it to refer pain to numerous structures.

Research has demonstrated that the SCM muscles are primary generators of temporomandibular joint dysfunction and pain via two primary methods.

First, a tight sternocleidomastoid muscle has the potential to generate referred pain directly to the jaw and surrounding structures via a myofascial pain origin.

Secondly, alterations in cervical and head movement patterns due to muscle fiber disruption in the SCM creates a pattern of aberrant biomechanics of the TMJ.

At times it is discovered simply, via a tight or swollen SCM.

Palpation of the SCM muscle in the anterior neck may reveal taught or ropey fibers.

Compression of these fibers or knots within the muscle may trigger pain to your jaw, typically on the same side.

While tightness, inflammation and pain to the SCM muscle will frequently trigger TMJ pain, other issues may cloud the picture.

Consider seeking the care of a trained medical professional if you are unable to determine if your sternocleidomastoid muscle is contributing to your TMJ pain.

Common Causes Of Temporomandibular Joint Dysfunction

  • Grinding Your Teeth (Bruxism)

  • Clenching Your Teeth

  • Arthritis of the Joint

  • Tightening of the Neck or Facial Muscles

  • Stress

  • Trauma to the Jaw, Teeth or Neck

  • Malalignment of the Jaw

  • Whiplash

  • Poor Head & Neck Posture

Just as the cause of Temporomandibular Joint Disorders are often multifactorial in nature, the symptoms of TMD often occur simultaneously.

In fact, one symptom can build upon another symptom leading to a progressive syndrome of symptoms.

Signs and symptoms of TMJ disorder (TMD):

  • Jaw pain or tenderness.

  • Pain to one or both temporomandibular joints.

  • Achy pain or pressure in or around your ear.

  • Difficulty or pain with chewing.

  • Facial or head pain.

  • Headaches.

  • Tooth pain.

  • Clicking or popping noise (crepitus) with jaw movements.

  • Locking sensation of the jaw.

  • Neck stiffness, tightness or pain.

  • Fatigue to the jaw or cheeks.

  • Swelling to the side of your face.

The symptoms of temporomandibular joint disorders may affect a person bilaterally or unilaterally.

Due to the sensitivity of the jaw, head and face, a problem with the TMJ may cause symptoms, such as toothaches or earaches, that seem unrelated to the jaw.

These symptoms coincide due to the overlap of musculature and nerve supply of these structures.

Simple, effective TMJ and sternocleidomastoid treatments

There are a wide-range of effective, validated treatment options for Temporomandibular Joint Disorder including home treatment options, conservative care therapies and surgery.

Established as one of the most complex joints in humans, surgery is considered only in extreme circumstances when all other options have been exhausted.

Home care options for TMJ and SCM pain

  • Stretching: The first time you stretch your SCM, it is helpful to visualize the muscle by watching yourself in the mirror. Facing the mirror, lean your ear towards your shoulder. When you do so, you will see the tight sternocleidomastoid muscle become readily apparent as a band from the clavicle to the ear. Stretch it by holding your head tilted to one side while rotating your chin in an upwards and slightly counter-rotated direction. Remember to keep the stretch mild. It should not generate any pain.

  • Self-Massage: Massage is defined as manipulation of the soft tissues to reduce tissue stress and pain. A viable, home-care option, massage for TMD may be self-administered by oneself or a loved one. The sensitivity of the temporomandibular joint should guide massage of the area, limiting techniques to those using fingers or hands. Explore the following types of massage:

Trigger Point Therapy - Identify and compress knots within the SCM muscle. Apply pressure for 30 seconds and then release.

Stripping - Anchor one end of the SCM with one hand. Using the other hand stroke along the length of the muscle with easy pressure.

Kneading - Use a repetitive rolling motion along the side of the neck progressing downwards with slow, continuous movement. This technique is optimal for the head and scalp area. Gentle, using fingertips only, work through the hair to massage the sensitive fascia and muscles of the head and jaw.

Stroking - Lighter than stripping, stroking is a smooth movement of pressure down the lateral aspect of the neck. This can be as gentle as a brush along the skin.

It is imperative to keep work in this region gentle. At no time should pain be elicited. Soothing and relaxing, massage is an instant stress and tension reducer. Quickly, massage will increase circulation, improving overall healing.

  • Icing: Icing is an easy to use anti-inflammatory treatment for your swollen SCM. Apply an ice pack to the affected muscle with a towel or cloth layer between the ice pack and your skin. Leave ice on for 15-20 minutes. Icing may be repeated once per hour.

  • Topical Analgesics: There are a wide variety of pain relieving lotions and gels. These can be applied topically to the TMJ and surrounding musculature, taking care to avoid your eyes and nose. Active ingredients may include menthol, salicylic acid, capsaicin and/or lidocaine.

  • Stress Reduction: Reducing stress in life, be it physical, emotional or spiritual stress, will have an impact on pain and function. Optimizing health in all facets has been proven to directly reduce pain. Whether utilizing meditation or time management skills, reducing stress is key to managing temporomandibular pain.

  • Aromatherapy: Stress directly correlates with increased muscle tension and bruxism. Utilizing scents known to induce a calming environment can be a component of stress reduction. Lavender is the most recognized stress-reducing scent; however, numerous options exist ranging from exotic Patchouli to Ylang Ylang. Explore your favorites to find a grounding, balancing effect.

  • Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Medications: Over-the-Counter NSAIDs are utilized to reduce joint inflammation and pain. Ibuprofen, Naproxen Sodium and Tylenol are medications that can be utilized to treat TMD.

Conservative treatment choices

  • Massage Therapy: Massage therapy is a treatment modality that can be administered in a variety of formats. Self-massage of the temporomandibular joint and sternocleidomastoid muscles is often very effective; yet, at times working with a licensed professional to develop techniques that target your specific issues can optimize results. Licensed Massage Therapists (LMT) are highly trained bodywork professionals. Their training allows them to identify problem areas and determine the extent of involvement. The LMT will utilize a variety of manual therapy options to achieve desired results. This may include trigger point therapy, muscle stripping, effleurage, dynamic stretching and other myofascial release techniques.

  • Chiropractic Care: Chiropractic treatments include multiple modalities with the Chiropractic Spinal Adjustment being the foundation. Restoring proper biomechanics and mobility, a chiropractic physician will utilize physical therapeutics, myofascial release and/or massage, stretching & exercises and additional therapy options to treat Temporomandibular Joint Disorders. Utilizing education and home exercises, correction and elimination of your TMD is the primary goal.

  • Physical Therapy: Utilizing exercises as the primary medium, physical therapy works to correct the aberrant movement patterns that led to the development of your TMD. Physical Therapists utilize numerous modalities for pain reduction and correction of posture.

  • Kinesio Taping: A rehabilitative treatment choice to maximize the healing of the affected muscle, Kinesio Taping provides support and stability without restricting movement.

  • Dental Appliances: If bruxism is a component of your TMD, having a custom made bite guard is an important step necessary to protect your teeth. Designed to correct malalignments and improve joint function, a bite guard will help resolve symptoms of TMJ pain and dysfunction.

While typically avoided except in the most extreme cases, more invasive treatment options exist.

These include:

Temporomandibular joint disorders can greatly impact quality of life.

Fortunately, self-help options are successful in many cases.

When home care options fail to improve symptoms and function, seeking care from the appropriate professional is paramount to achieving good results.

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