Jaw pain caused by disorders of the temporomandibular joint (often abbreviated just TMJ) can interfere with talking, enjoying food, and even sleeping comfortably. Some alternative therapies like dry needling have become popular options for treatment – but what exactly is dry needling, and does it work for TMJ?
What Is TMJ Dry Needling?
In the practice of dry needling anywhere on the body, a therapist inserts tiny needles into the skin and facial muscles in order to stimulate trigger points, or tight spots, within the muscle fibers. The needle’s placement causes the muscle fibers to twitch, which is thought to stimulate a healing response. Dry needling is believed to help with muscle and joint pain by decreasing tightness and boosting blood flow.
When dry needling is used to treat TMJ, the needles are placed to target specific muscles that interact with this joint – most often including the masseter muscles, which open and close the jaw to chew and are often clenched under stress.
TMJ dry needling is simply the treatment technique known as dry needling, used to address the symptoms of TMJ.
How to Know If You Have TMJ
TMJ troubles are endured by as many as 10 million Americans. So if your jaw, face, or even ears have been bothering you, this just may be the culprit. The TMJ can be found where the jawbone connects to the skull on either side, and works as the hinge that opens and closes the mouth. It’s small in size, but for those with TMJ issues, this facial joint can cause major and long-lasting discomfort.
Symptoms of temporomandibular disorders (more technically, shortened to TMD) include jaw pain, headaches, neck pain, earaches or ringing in the ears, and a clicking, popping, or locking sensation in the jaw. TMJ problems can be caused by an injury, or more frequently, by teeth grinding, arthritis, stress, or a misaligned bite. They’re most common between 20 and 40 years of age, and experienced by more women than men.
Does Dry Needling for TMJ Really Work?
There’s no single cure-all for TMJ, but several therapies and techniques are known to help soothe its symptoms. Many sufferers turn to holistic remedies, among them dry needling. But does dry needling for TMJ really work, and what’s important to know about it? Let’s take a look.
Dry needling is a relatively new therapy, so research is limited. However, early studies do suggest that dry needling may be an effective treatment for TMJ pain. In one recent study, dry needling in the muscles surrounding the TMJ led patients to note a significantly reduced amount of facial pain as well as an overall relaxation of those muscles.
TMJ dry needling is offered by many acupuncturists, doctors, chiropractors, and physical therapists, who use it to help patients alleviate pain, stiffness, clicking, trouble chewing, and more. However, certification and licensing in dry needling vary by state, and requirements are not as specific or stringent as for some other types of pain management therapy.
The Connection Between Trigger Points and TMJ
Trigger points are tender spots of muscle, often simply called knots, that arise in muscles all over the human body. They can be caused by injuries, overuse, or even emotional stress. The muscles related to the temporomandibular joint, though they may be small compared to a hamstring or bicep, can also develop trigger points that cause pain throughout the face, mouth, jaw, head, and neck. (This type of pain that develops in an area separate from the trigger point itself is called referred pain.)
If a facial trigger point is relieved, many patients will also find relief from their TMJ dysfunction and discomfort. Trigger points linked with TMJ can sometimes be found in the masseter muscles on the sides of the face, the temporalis muscles along the temples, and another set of chewing muscles called the pterygoids, located between the skull and jaw bones.
When one of these muscles is tense or affected by a trigger point, it can put physical stress on the temporomandibular joint that in turn leads to symptoms of TMJ. So while the joint is often the apparent problem, the root of TMJ sometimes actually lies within the muscles.
The Benefits of Dry Needling for TMJ
So what changes might you expect to see if you choose to try dry needling for TMJ? Probably the most sought-after benefit is a reduction in pain and discomfort around the jaw. Dry needling may also help with the range of motion issues, trouble chewing, and locking or popping sensations that often accompany TMJ problems.
Some patients find that these benefits also lead to an improvement in sleep, an easier time focusing without the distraction of pain or popping, a greater enjoyment of eating, and fewer dental problems.
Essentially, dry needling for TMJ may work by encouraging the body’s healing processes. It is thought to stimulate blood flow and alleviate inflammation to ultimately relax and repair the muscles surrounding your jaw that may be the root of TMJ issues.
Can Dry Needling Help with TMJ Headaches?
Dry needling may help with TMJ headaches. Headaches are one of the most common symptoms of TMJ. In fact, TMJ headaches are often mistaken for migraines, and experts agree that many headaches diagnosed as straightforward tension headaches are actually TMJ. If you commonly experience headaches but don’t find relief from headache-targeted treatments, consider that TMJ may be to blame.
Fortunately, any treatment that increases blood flow and muscle relaxation around the jaw can help to soothe TMJ headaches, as well.
Does TMJ Dry Needling Hurt?
Dry needling for TMJ (like acupuncture, another type of therapy using needles) should not hurt or cause any sharp pain. The needles used in this treatment are extremely thin, and feel nothing like those you might find in a doctor’s office. As the needles are placed, you may notice the underlying muscle twitch, which can feel like a cramp. This sensation should dissipate in a few minutes.
After a dry needling treatment for TMJ, you may feel a dull soreness in the muscles of your face for several days. This is a normal part of the healing process and should fade in a few days or less.
How Many Sessions are Typically Required?
For many people suffering from TMJ pain, one session of dry needling can be enough to begin feeling better. About 24 hours after your first dry needling treatment, you may begin to feel more relaxation, ease, and comfort throughout your jaw and face.
However, it sometimes takes a few treatment sessions – you could aim for once a week, for about a month – to experience the best possible results. When you consult with your physical therapist or other dry needling provider, they can develop a treatment plan based on your symptoms and goals.
Potential Risks and Side Effects
Dry needling is minimally invasive, so potential risks are low. However, like any healthcare procedure, it does come with a nonzero chance of complications that it’s always important to know about in advance. If non-sterile needles are used, for example (which should never happen with a high-quality practitioner), there is a risk of infection.
In terms of side effects, you may experience some residual soreness, skin bruising, or fatigue after the procedure. Occasionally, there is minor bleeding of the skin at the site where needles are inserted. And finally, if you are prone to fainting, you may want to consider if dry needling could prompt an episode of lightheadedness.
Dry needling is not safe for everyone. Those who have a current infection or a type of tissue disease called lymphedema, or are pregnant, for example, should wait until a doctor gives the green light to try dry needling for TMJ. In addition, it’s recommended that anyone with abnormal bleeding, immune or vascular disorders, diabetes, or epilepsy consult with their physician first for guidance.
Traditional Chinese Medicine Therapies for TMJ
If you're looking for a holistic approach to TMJ treatment, Traditional Chinese Medicine has thousands of years' worth of healing to offer. Dry needling is related to the popular Traditional Chinese Medicine treatment of acupuncture, though the two techniques differ in several major ways.
Acupuncture is a safe and effective treatment for TMJ since it works to reduce inflammation, pain, and tension. In targeted studies, people with TMJ pain reported significant differences, including less discomfort and better mobility, after undergoing acupuncture treatment.
Other Traditional Chinese Medicine therapies, like cupping – a "reverse massage" that uses suction to tug muscle and skin upward – are helpful to many who suffer from TMJ symptoms. Facial cupping, using specially designed cups that are smaller than those used on the rest of the body, can help decrease tension and promote healthy blood flow in all the muscles of your face, jaw, head, and neck.
And since TMJ symptoms can be brought on by emotional stress and tension, relaxation techniques along the lines of meditation, yoga, stretching, or deep breathing can also be powerful parts of the TMJ treatment toolbox.