I had terrible TMJ for decades. Because I would grind my teeth at night, I needed a mouthguard, but I hated it. It may have saved the enamel on my teeth but it made my jaw ache even more.
I remember in 2009, my physical therapist (who’s 70!) told me that I had the worst TMJ he had ever seen.
Three years later, thanks to my Alexander Technique lessons, the problem was gone, never to return.
The best explanation I know for how Alexander lessons can help with TMJ is in a couple of interviews with dentist and Alexander Technique teacher Dr. Martin Goldman.
Martin: “I had a specialty practice of endodontics. People would be sent to me for differential diagnosis by other dentists and physicians. They wanted me to rule out the possibility that pain of the pulp, the blood vessels and nerves inside the teeth, might be causing pain. I could do that efficiently. If the pain was coming from inside the tooth, I could treat that effectively. If it wasn’t, the patients would be grateful not to have root canal treatment and go off happy.
“I wondered where was this pain from? After I had been in my Alexander training, I realized that many of these people were suffering from harmful muscular holdings in the head, neck and back. If I would’ve just been keen enough to observe these people as they walked to the chair and sat in the chair, I might’ve been able to help them with their pain.”
“My understanding of pain of the head, neck and back is as Dr. Janet Travell, President Kennedy’s personal physician, said that pain in the head, neck and back is 90% muscular holding patterns. I believe that to be an understatement.”
“There’s a growing trend among dentists to recognize that movements in the lower jaw are not something that happens in a bone to bone movement but that these movements are controlled by muscles.”
“The solution is to release these muscular holding patterns. By freeing the head and neck, there can be benefits throughout the body in balance and coordination.”
“Movement of the lower jaw is guided by muscles rather than by bones and joints.”
Robert Rickover: “There seems to be a law of human movement that when your idea of how something operates matches physical reality, the movement is going to be smoother than if your concept differs from reality. Your saying find out what reality is and use that as your guide to movement.”
Martin: “How we think about movement influences our movement.”
“Try clenching your teeth and see how that affects your breathing. By comparison, say the word ‘Boston’ slowly and then check in with your breath.
“The word introduces movement into your lower jaw. It gives you a rough approximation of the physiologic rest position of the lower mandible.
“All the muscles that open and close your lower jaw are in balance and are at their most ready for movement. They’re balanced. There’s the least amount of chemical activity in those muscles to maintain tonus.
“In this physiologic rest position, your lips will come lightly together and your teeth will be apart. Any time your teeth are touching during the course of the day, there’s a good chance that that is a dysfunctional or pathological position for you. You’re going to do some harm to yourself.
“Somebody suffering from muscular tension should monitor the space between their teeth and give themselves permission to allow the lower jaw to give in to gravity, to sense the gravitational pull on the lower jaw, it’s a heavy piece of bone, but don’t give in a millimeter more than is necessary.
“Most joints in the body, gravity will settle them unless you have upright reflexes occur. That’s why you are shorter at the end of the day.”
“Recognize the gravitational pull on your lower jaw. You don’t need to hold it up. You don’t need to have it over-close. If you can sense your physiologic rest position, your overall well-being will improve.”
Robert: “An interesting experiment would be to see how little work you can do to open your mouth.”
Martin: “If I’m driving in traffic, I’ll often catch myself and ask, why am I holding my jaw like this? There’s plenty of stimulus involved in driving and if you can pause and allow your jaw to be free. Not a hectoring instruction to yourself. Just a wish. Just a mere thought. Wouldn’t it be nice if my jaw muscles were not tense? You’ll see some major effects, including how you hold your head.”
Robert: “What about the various devices dentists prescribe with TMJ?”
Martin: “Typically dentists will prescribe mouth guards. You can buy them in the drug store. Those mouth guards, when you close up into them, most people with TMJ, have an eccentric chewing pattern. There’s tightness and holding that makes the jaw close in a way that causes this pain.
“When you bite into this appliances, you’re just replicating the dysfunction. Most people will wind up worse off. I would recommend seeking a neuro-muscularly trained dentist. Let him track the movements of your jaw so your mouthguard is made at the physiologic rest position.
“There’s an inter-oral orthodic, a mouthguard made in this fashion. There was a dentist in Halifax who had a lobster fisherman come into his office. This fisherman had terrible headaches. The dentist made him an orthodic that allowed his muscles to come into equilibrium.
“He had him back a week later. The guy said, my headaches are gone but more amazingly, I was out on my boat and I could pull up the pots and lift them in a way I couldn’t do in 20 years.”
“By balancing the musculature in the head and neck, he allowed the head to come to equilibrium. This dentist developed a pure performance mouthguard.”
“Try clenching your jaw and then turn your head to the side. Now face forward again. Say ‘Boston.’ Let your jaw have space between the teeth. Now make that same movement. You’ll notice increased flexibility and ease. You can’t have a free jaw without a free neck and vice versa.”
“One of the pioneers who gave scientific verification to the Alexander Technique was Frank Pierce Jones who called the Atlanto-occipital joint the prime distribution point for bodily stress. If you can intervene at that point to introduce ease and to let go of muscular contraction in that area, then the net pulling the rest of you inward and tighter is loosened.”
Mr. Gillis is among a small but growing number of athletes wearing what manufacturers like to call “performance mouthpieces” while cycling, running or weight training. One of the newest tools in a performance-enhancement arsenal, these mouthpieces are light, flexible pieces of molded plastic that fit over the teeth — and are only vaguely reminiscent of that retainer from junior high school or the bulky mouth guards worn by football players.
Dentists say these high-end mouth guards can open up the airways, prevent teeth-clenching and align the jaw. Being able to take in more air while exercising has obvious benefits — more oxygen for working muscles — while a relaxed jaw can decrease stress and help an athlete’s body function more efficiently.
“There is research to support improved breathing mechanics and reduced jaw fatigue,” said Fabio Comana, an exercise physiologist with the American Council on Exercise. “Depending on how you look at it, there is some truth to the claims.”
Unlike regular mouth guards, which are available off the shelf and at modest prices, performance mouthpieces cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars and must be custom-fitted by a dentist. Ordinary mouth guards are usually dropped in boiling water and fitted to the wearer’s teeth to protect against injury. With performance mouth guards, the idea is to reposition the jaw, anywhere from a few millimeters to, in the case of Mr. Gillis, a quarter of an inch sideways.
Two main brands are on the market — Makkar and Under Armour — and each makes the claim that it can increase an athlete’s strength, reduce stress and improve overall performance. Professional athletes have taken note: during the World Series this year, television viewers could see Derek Jeter wearing a mouthpiece made by Bite Tech, the company that developed the technology that Under Armour uses. In early November, Jon Gruden of ESPN said on “Monday Night Football” that many of the New Orleans Saints wore Makkar mouth guards.
Robert: “TMJ can be an early warning sign of bigger things.”
Martin: “If you are holding in one part of your body, the TMJ is an important joint, but other joints in the body have the same rules that apply. If a joint is open, it operates more efficiently and with more ease. Ease can spread throughout the body. If you gain ease in one part of your body, it can spread by subtraction [of interfering muscular holding].”
I charge $100 per lesson (which usually lasts 45 minutes or longer). Bring a friend or two at no extra charge. Call me at 323-528-5814 or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I am located a block from Beverly Hills.
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