It seems that a pain everyone will experience at one time or another, especially while performing important daily activities such as eating and talking, is jaw pain. These activities are necessities to normal function and any amount of this pain can be debilitating—causing increased stress and decreased focus. It may be easy to search for these symptoms online, and discover that a temporomandibular joint (TMJ) dysfunction is the most common diagnosis associated with your pain. Is it really that easy to diagnose? Or could there be something else, some other overlooked explanation for the pain you are experiencing?

A TMJ dysfunction occurs when the joint that makes up the jaw becomes restricted, either by the condylar disc (the connective tissue between the two bones that make up the joint) or the muscles that surround and move the joint, such as the masseter and temporalis. This can occur as a result of prolonged opening of the mouth, which you may experience during dental procedures or from other jaw injuries. More ambiguous causes, such as arthritis or autoimmune diseases, can be at fault as well. Treatment of these conditions can involve TMJ mobilization and soft tissue to the jaw muscles to release tension in the joint.

Keeping this in mind, it is important to be aware of another condition that causes similar symptoms, but that is unrelated to the actual function of the jaw. This condition is referred to as upper cervical dysfunction. Upper cervical dysfunction occurs when the upper cervical joints (C1-C3) and the associated muscles become restricted and refer pain to other areas—most commonly behind the eyes and to the jaw area. These areas can be affected by whiplash injuries, stress, or merely sleeping in the wrong position. In these cases, treatment consists of manual intervention to treat the upper cervical spine mobility and perform soft tissue mobilization to the upper cervical and suboccipital musculature. An exercise program for stretching and postural stabilization would also be incorporated to prolong relief, and return you to normal function long term.

“I once encountered a patient, who was referred to physical therapy for a TMJ dysfunction, who had been in pain for so long that she had been unable to eat any solid foods for the previous 6 months. I started evaluating her TMJ function and I noticed that she had no deviations in movement of the jaw, so I immediately turned to evaluating her upper cervical spine. After explaining the differences in TMJ and upper cervical dysfunction, I began to focus on and treat her upper cervical spine. About 2 weeks into the treatment, we started to see an improvement in function and a significant decrease in pain. The following Monday she returned to physical therapy to report that she had been able to eat a hamburger from her favorite restaurant, for the first time in over 6 months!”

This anecdote serves as a reminder that the most obvious explanation is not always the right one. Allow us to help you determine where your pain is coming from and put you back on the road to recovery by making the choice to see a physical therapist at one of our many Foothills Sports Medicine clinics. Whether that means enjoying a meal at your favorite restaurant, or just being able to get through a normal day, is up to you!

Foothills Sports Medicine Physical Therapy is a group of locally owned Phoenix physical therapy clinics. We provide comprehensive care for any complaints you may have, and our staff will create an individualized plan that best responds to your needs. To schedule a free assessment with us, go online here today. For more information about Phoenix physical therapy, follow our blog!

Nickolas Griffith received his doctorate in Physical Therapy from Loma Linda University, and has been a dedicated and passionate PT since. He is here to explain the hidden cause behind many headaches, and how physical therapy could help you become pain free.

Headaches are a common source of pain for many people, yet they are often overlooked. You might think of it as a natural occurrence at the end of a long day that can be cured with some ibuprofen— but that does not solve the real problem. While there are many reasons a person may develop a headache, a common source is actually related to stress, tension, and possible dysfunctions in the muscles in your neck. Due to increased tightness and abnormal workload in the muscles that support your neck and head, pain is referred up into the head and perceived as a headache. These are referred to as cervicogenic headaches (the term cervical referring to the neck region, and genic meaning “originates from”).

There are many possible causes of a cervicogenic headache, including poor posture while sitting at a desk all day, straining your neck during daily activities, or from traumatic whiplash, which can occur in an automobile accident. These headaches can cause occasional and mild disturbances, or they can cause severe daily problems that can have a real impact on your quality of life.

It is important to understand the causes of your headache, so you can figure out what can be done to fix it. The therapists at Foothills Sports Medicine can assess each individual situation, find the cause of your problem, and help you become pain free. In a world where medications are quickly handed out to cover up symptoms without treating the cause of the problem, it is encouraging to know there is a more comprehensive approach to relieving your headaches.

The goals we create for you upon starting physical therapy will be both short-term and long-term. Our short-term goals may start with relieving headache pain by decreasing tightness using modalities (heat/ice), soft tissue massage, and other techniques to relax the muscles causing pain headaches. In the long-term, postural strengthening and awareness is key to not only resolving today’s headache, but to avoiding tension and preventing headaches in the future.

A few of the manual treatments that we utilize here at Foothills Sports Medicine are soft tissue mobilization, segmental joint mobilization, functional trigger-point dry needling, manual stretching, and specialized techniques meant to target the dysfunctional musculature. Combining these manual techniques with an exercise program that targets back muscles for postural strengthening, as well as stretching the cervical musculature, creates a recipe to permanently resolve your headaches. While the manual treatment helps normalize the soft tissue restrictions in your neck, it is the at-home exercise program that creates long-term success.

The next time you are experiencing a headache you cannot quite escape, consider seeking physical therapy rather than accepting pain as “normal.” Foothills has 21 physical therapy clinics across the Valley, so feel free to contact us so we can begin to help you achieve a pain-free life.