Question: I have a problem with TMJ. Frequently I wake up in the morning with tremendous tension in my jaw and face, and sometimes a bad headache. I have been reading about the causes of TMJ, and various authors differ on the cause: from injury to allergies to certain bite problems. What does TCM see as the cause of TMJ and how do you treat it?
Answer: There are many different ideas on what causes TMJ: for instance, trauma from accidents, stress and some of the other causes you have mentioned. From the TCM perspective, and in my opinion, TMJ is related to a Stomach function disorder as well as a disorder of the Stomach meridians (the meridians for any given organ run on both sides of the body). The first thing we see is that the Stomach meridians run through the jaw area. Because of stress and an energy imbalance, the Stomach’s energy stagnates—something is stuck—and then this area of the body will show the effects of that stagnation.
The reason that clenching, grinding and TMJ show up at night is because during the day the conscious mind is busy, distracted; its attention is turned to different things, turned in a different direction. At night, the conscious mind goes to sleep, but you still have not processed some things very well. From the perspective of Chinese psychology you are “overeating”: your life has things which you are trying to “eat,” but cannot “swallow.” For example, you may have a big project coming up at work. You are trying to bite something, and trying to chew it. TMJ is like an emotional chewing on the level of the subconscious. In the West, you have the expression, “Something’s eating you.” You are trying to chew something that you cannot, or are not able, to chew. In some way, in the daytime you didn’t finish processing the issue, so during the night, during sleep, you still continue to chew it. You also have the expression, “You’ve bit off more than you can chew.” Very often, this health problem is related to a large amount of stress in life, like a big project or an overwhelming problem; many things are behind TMJ.
If you really want to fix this kind of problem, in my opinion, you have to learn how to let things go. If you can learn how to let things go in an emotional way, then acupuncture and herbs will help your TMJ. Otherwise, these treatments can only provide temporary relief —a couple of months later you’ll be getting it again.
People suffering from TMJ can help themselves by massaging the following points: Hegu (Large Intestine 4, located on the middle of the second metacarpal bone); Jiache (Stomach 6, located in the lower portion of the masseter or jaw muscle, the area that expands when you bite your upper and lower teeth together); and Tinggong (Small Intestine 19, located in front of the ear in the spot where there is a “hole” when the jaw is opened). Massaging these points can bring temporary relief from the side effects of TMJ, such as headaches, jaw tension and neck pain. But to really fix this kind of problem you have to go to the emotions and release them. You have to understand why you are holding something beyond what you can handle. You have to understand the stress. By understanding the root cause, it will help you to release the problem.