How can being poked by a needle actually relieve pain? It seems to make no logical sense, but this integrative medical practice has been successfully used to treat pain and disease for thousands of years. You may be reluctant to try acupuncture for TMJ, but it may just provide the relief you are looking for. Here’s what you need to know.

What is TMJ, or TMD?

Temporomandibular joint disorder (also called TMJ or TMD) is a chronic pain condition that can be debilitating if left untreated. Your temporomandibular joint connects the lower jaw (the mandible) with the upper jaw, just in front of the ears. This ball-and-socket joint is lined with cartilage to smooth movement that allows you to eat, speak, and open your mouth.

Over time or placed under stress, this joint can become irritated and inflamed. When this happens, you may begin to experience the symptoms of TMJ. These can include:

  • Popping and clicking in the joint
  • Jaw stiffness
  • Pain or soreness in the jaw, neck, shoulders, head, and ears
  • Swelling, heat, and redness in the joint
  • Toothache
  • Headache
  • Shoulder pain
  • Ringing ears (tinnitus)
  • Ear pain
  • Facial pain

As symptoms progress, you may experience a locked jaw and, in extreme cases, dislocation in the joint.

TMJ risk factors

TMJ can be caused by simple wear and tear in the joint over time, but there are other factors that can create inflammation in the joint. They include:

  • Teeth grinding (bruxism)
  • Poor tooth alignment/improper bite
  • Trauma to the face and jaw
  • Stress that leads to jaw clenching
  • Arthritis
  • Excessive gum chewing

Once the underlying cause is identified, acupuncture for TMJ can help relieve pain and inflammation.

How does acupuncture for TMJ work?

Acupuncture is an experience-based Chinese medical practice that has been developed over thousands of years. One of the pillars of the Chinese medical approach is the idea that we have fast-moving yang and slow-moving yin energies in the body. When they are in balance, we experience a state of wellness and well-being. Too much of one or the other can cause a sense of dis-ease in the body.

Chinese medical doctors identified meridians in the body that allow energy (referred to as qi, pronounced “chee”) to balance and flow through the body. These meridians are also connected to specific organs that can experience a deficiency, an excess, or a block.

When this energy becomes blocked due to trauma or illness (or an imbalance of yin/yang energies), acupuncture can help. Practitioners insert hair-thin needles (called pins) into specific acupuncture points to help release this blocked energy. In Chinese medical theory, blocked energy can both cause and be caused by disease or illness. Regardless of the cause or effect, acupuncture helps to unblock and move energy through the body.

In modern medicine, acupuncture has profound and measurable effects on the body. Proper placement of acupuncture pins can help decrease inflammation and pain, either at the site of the pin or in a targeted treatment area of the body.

Acupuncture for TMD/TMJ helps in a variety of ways.

  • Acupuncture for jaw pain stimulates the body’s pain-fighting response
  • While it does not change the behavior, acupuncture for jaw clenching may help relieve the stress that prompts it
  • Acupuncture for TMJ can increase circulation in the joint, speeding healing and repairing damage

Along with these specific benefits, your acupuncturist will treat you for overall wellness. Chinese medicine is a holistic practice that considers the function of the whole body, not just symptoms in one area. In addition to using acupuncture for TMJ symptoms, your practitioner will work to restore whole body well-being. This can help to relieve the stress-related causes of TMJ, too.

Does acupuncture help with TMJ?

There is a growing body of evidence that indicates the possibility for significant benefits from this treatment approach. For example:

  • In a 2017 review of studies, researchers found that acupuncture for TMJ reduced pain, especially for those with myofascial pain.
  • When it comes to stress, acupuncture provides stress relief that lasts well past treatment. For many patients with stress-related TMJ that is caused by teeth grinding and jaw clenching, this could provide profound relief.
  • Another study found that acupuncture for TMJ can also provide better pain relief than state-of-the-art traditional medical interventions.

These study findings build on previous research. In an earlier study, 85% of patients receiving acupuncture for TMJ saw a 75% reduction in pain levels after just three treatments.

Acupuncture for TMJ research continues to show the benefits of this complementary medical approach to treating chronic pain conditions.

What can I expect during my TMJ acupuncture appointment?

Your first acupuncture appointment will generally be the longest. The acupuncturist will take a detailed medical history that includes not only your current areas of concern but also any issues in the past or family history to be aware of. They will ask about your activity levels, diet, stress levels, and other treatments you have tried (or are currently using).

After they gather your medical history, they will give you an opportunity to ask any questions you might have. Once you are ready, you will lie down on the treatment table, often face up but sometimes face down. Your acupuncturist will listen to your pulses on both sides of the body (taken at the wrists). They use this information (and your goals for treatment) to place the pins.

Although the area being treated is the jaw, you may receive acupuncture pins elsewhere on your body. Generally, these locations can be accessed without you needing to remove clothing (although you may need to shift things a bit to accommodate the pins).

Once the acupuncture needles are in place, your acupuncturist will leave the room and let you rest. This time varies but is usually about 15 minutes or so.

After a period of time, your acupuncturist will come in, remove the needles, and check your pulses. They may opt to add another pin or two, either very quickly or allowing you to sit for another few minutes, or you may be finished for the day.

Overall, your first acupuncture for TMJ appointment will last between 90 minutes and two hours.

How many appointments will I need?

The number of appointments (and how often you have them) will vary. This depends on symptoms, treatment goals, and severity of the condition being treated. In general, during the very painful acute phase of treatment, you might have more appointments closer together (i.e., once a week for a month). As your condition improves and you shift to overall wellness support, visits might be less frequent (once a month or as needed).

Your acupuncturist can give you an idea of treatment timelines and frequency during your first visit.

Does acupuncture hurt?

One of the main questions patients have when heading into their first acupuncture appointment is whether or not it will hurt.

Each acupuncture pin is between 0.12mm and 0.50mm thick – literally the thickness of a hair or less. Most patients report feeling either no sensation at all or a very slight prick that disappears as soon as it registers. In very thin skin, chances are you will feel the brief prick, but it does not last.

How does treatment feel?

Acupuncture for TMJ is not usually a painful experience. The treatments themselves are usually relaxing, with time to rest built in. Some patients even fall asleep during the procedure!

Afterwards, you may feel an increased sense of calmness, and you may even be a little sleepy.

Are there side effects or risks?

Although generally low risk, as with every medical treatment, acupuncture for TMJ comes with the possibility of side effects or risks. The most common side effects include minor soreness, bruising, and bleeding at the insertion point. Some patients may experience slight dizziness.

Very rare but serious side effects and risks include:

  • Dermatitis
  • Nerve damage
  • Hepatitis B
  • Localized internal bleeding

These risks and side effects can be prevented by choosing an experienced acupuncturist who uses single-use, sterilized acupuncture pins in their practice.

Is there anyone who should not receive acupuncture?

If you have a bleeding disorder or are taking blood thinners, acupuncture may not be for you. Those with a pacemaker should avoid electrical acupuncture (but may be good candidates for traditional acupuncture).

Some doctors recommend that pregnant women avoid acupuncture, but others disagree. Talk to your doctor to see what’s best for you.

How do I find an acupuncturist near me?

The National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM) has a practitioner directory to help you find a qualified acupuncturist near you.

The American Society of Acupuncturists  (ASA) also has links to directories in your state.

What are other TMJ treatments?

For the best chance of success, chronic pain conditions are best approached from a variety of treatment angles. In addition to acupuncture for TMJ, there are other treatments that can help ease your pain. These may include:

  • Home care: Rest, hot/cold therapy, and posture exercises can help with pain and inflammation
  • Stress relieving practices: Meditation, tai chi, and yoga can help relieve stress-related TMJ pain
  • Jaw massage: Massage increases blood flow to the area and speed healing of injuries
  • OTC medications: Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen can reduce pain and inflammation (if approved by your doctor)
  • Prescription medications: Muscle relaxers help relieve stress-related TMJ pain
  • TENS unit therapy: This therapy replaces pain signals with a mild electrical buzzing leading to fewer painful sensations
  • Botox for TMJ: Botox for TMJ paralyzes the muscles of the jaw that are clenching to relieve pain and ease inflammation

Many of these treatments can be applied at the same time with no risk of interactions or treatment-related side effects.

Work with your doctor to find the approach that works best for you. For example, you may incorporate acupuncture into your monthly routine along with daily stress reduction. On days where your pain flares up, OTC medications or hot/cold therapy could help.

Get help with your TMJ pain

When you are suffering from the pain of TMJ, your primary doctor may refer you to a pain specialist. Pain specialists develop pain management plans that incorporate a variety of methods to help you find relief. Acupuncture for TMJ is one of those methods.

Find a pain specialist in Arizona or Texas by clicking the button below or look for one in your area by using the tips here:

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