Note: this article deals with my own personal experiences with herbal support and TMJ which are, on a scale, probably more mild. I cannot guarantee that the remedies I have used will help with a more severe case.
**Disclaimer** The information in this article is NOT intended to assess, diagnose, prescribe, or promise cure. Its intent is to be purely educational; if suffering serious illness, please contact a professional healthcare provider.
It starts with headaches in the morning. Your sinuses feel crushed, your eyes feel like they’ve been punched as far back into your skull as they can go, and you definitely don’t feel well rested. Your teeth hurt, your jaw is tense. Your ears are ringing, or feel full of pressure. It’s easy to lop this off to the average morning headache, except they begin happening more and more frequently. Sometimes it’s accompanied with staying up really late, being unable to sleep, feeling tense, mind racing. You wake up in the middle of the night with your jaw clenched shut like a steel trap. Your partner, spouse, or others in your house say they hear a loud creaking noise at night– the sound of your teeth grinding intensely in your sleep.
Sometimes teeth grinding (also called Bruxism) is transitory, but others have to deal with it much longer as the result of a larger system of problems. When it gets that way, it is called Temperomandibular Joint Disorder, or TMJ. Through the process of realizing I had this problem, and being an herbalist, I was surprised to find that in the herbal world there was very little insight into the matter.
It’s an amazingly minor issue. But that’s where half of the agony of it comes from– even I think calling it a “disorder” makes it seem much worse than it actually is. But I can tell you, though, that as I started to develop the symptoms myself, they were NOT pleasant. They are hampering, day-ruining, and difficult to alleviate. When you describe what you are going through to someone, and say that you have a “disorder”, their tendency is to say “Hey– doesn’t sound so bad, for a disorder.”
And– they’re right. But it sure doesn’t make the situation any better, and something that you can’t always get a grip on with herbal care or home remedies. It’s a non-serious “illness” that is still really painful, and can easily ruin an entire day. I would put it in the same category as migraines, cluster headaches, etc. since it impairs you quite similarly.
When I found out I had the disorder and start researching ways to make it better, I only find that there really isn’t a permanent fix or “cure” for TMJ. There is only palliative care to prevent the pain from reaching intolerable levels. As of yet, there is still no single, determined cause for TMJ, although there are pinpointed factors that lead up to developing its symptoms. It would appear that the disorder tends to be a “network” of issues, stemming from many different sources. There is also no determined cure– save for surgeries and operations costing people thousands of dollars at a time, which sometimes make the symptoms and condition worse, rather than helping it at all.
I didn’t receive an official diagnosis of TMJ from a doctor or dentist because I was terrified of going in to get help. I learned of the disorder by going through all the symptoms I was having, putting them together, and going from there. When TMJ popped up, it fit the puzzle perfectly; I immediately knew this was the problem I was having. However, upon doing further research on TMJ and case studies of people going in to get diagnosed, there were so many stories I found of patients having products, operations, and surgeries pushed very forcefully upon them. Some of them were horror stories, with people coming out with permanently disfigured faces and no relief from their pain. I knew I had TMJ, but did not want a dentist to confirm it for me and then badger me for going against their advice for useless surgery, expensive mouth guards, or even getting braces. Still, the pain of TMJ continued to haunt me, as many of those who suffer it can also relate.
The symptoms for Temperomandibular Joint Disorder, according to online sources, are as follows: jaw, neck, and shoulder pain; grinding teeth at night, popping jaw, sometimes lock jaw; ear pain, tinnitus, sinus headaches, difficulty chewing, and spine issues. They really aren’t limited to all that– sometimes other issues may develop. This is all due to the fact that some sort of problem has developed within the delicate, highly mobile joint of the jaw, where it meets the skull. It is amazing how, through the association of muscles inter-connected through our bodies, the pain of TMJ can spread elsewhere. There are a variety of supposed reasons why these symptoms develop. Of note, the vast majority of TMJ sufferers are women, which at this point is just a statistic with no determined reason why this is the case.
The leading determined cause of TMJ is stress and anxiety, but other reasons have been surmised– such as jaw/face/neck injury, poor bite, or even the result of recent major dental work. Excessive caffeine and alcohol use are definite factors too. If I were to apply basic Energetics to TMJ, I would say it is a cold, dry issue of the musculoskeletal system, although sometimes it can seem like more of a hot or warm condition with inflammation getting involved.
I am no doctor– but I am certainly an herbalist with empirical knowledge. I managed to, without seeing a doctor or dentist, turn to an arsenal of herbs and other support to help rid myself of symptoms of this heel-nipping disorder, and with some pretty lovely results.
REMEDIES- HERBS AND OTHERWISE
First things first– herbal medicine aside, get yourself a mouth guard. Wear it at night and you will find the symptoms of your TMJ about 80% obliterated. It has worked wonders for me, and is (literally) 100 times cheaper than some of the “front-line” mouth guards a dentist will tell you that you “need.” Not only does it help with the symptoms, but can help prevent a lot of the inherent damage that comes to your jaw or teeth when dealing with either Bruxism or TMJ– especially enamel wear.
While the mouth guard does help considerably, probably more so than anything, sometimes problems flare up for one reason or another. When that happens, I turn to certain herbs or other methods. The plants I find useful against TMJ after some experimentation with my apothecary were all quite interesting and versatile– in general, damp herbs work best, whether heating or cooling. It seems to depend on the needs, moment to moment.
-Hot/Damp Treatments. From a Western Herbalism perspective, it is hard to slap energetics on TMJ. But there is one thing I have found: hot and damp feels wonderful, and provides the quickest relief to that joint as well as your sinuses and ears. As such, you could classify TMJ as “Cold and Dry”– and definitely a constriction or tension issue.
Steams. Anything involving hot water helps. A simmering pot of water on the stove (not boiling!) is a great way to relieve the pain, placing your face and even each ear (if you have earaches) over the steam that rises. Certain herbs, especially mucilaginous and bronchio-dilating ones, put in the simmer can be of great help, too, and I will get to those later.
Teas. Even something as simple as a hot, steaming tea could help. Breathe in the steam before you drink.
Baths and Showers. Taking a hot shower can really help; but especially a hot bath filled with useful herbs, soaking straight through the skin!
Warm Compress. A warm- or hot-water soaked rag placed against the joint can be relieving. You may add some topical herbs to it if you like, which could provide a bit extra.
Neti Pot. This is usually my last-resort method in this vein. The salt and warmth itself can really help the most directly, making your ears “pop” nicely, providing relief for the time being. Herbs (especially tinctures) can be added for additional relief.
-Staying hydrated. Quite basic: drink lots of water, all the time. This especially helped me with the sinus headaches and earaches, which can feel “inflamed” pretty quick. Being hydrated alleviates this, helping your body produce a thinner mucus in your sinuses, keeping discomfort down.
-Herbs for Relief. Again, energetically, damp works best, warming is good too. But I have found that if it is first and foremost a mucilaginous herb, it will help in some way. So sometimes it can be a cooling herb.
Ginger (Zingiber officinale) Your archetypal warming, damp herb. 5 drop doses, every five minutes or so, can help with ear or sinus pain. Tincture is especially wonderful put in a Neti Pot (5-15 drops) for a quick rinse.
Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense) When it comes to sinus stuff, especially when sinuses are dry and crackly, Wild Ginger can be used in place of Ginger, and can actually work better. Ginger is more heating, while Wild Ginger just warms and helps the body create sweat and lubricate. This one is actually perfect in a Neti Pot, tincture form, combined with other herbs such as Dandelion, Plantain, Goldenrod flower or Ragweed flowers as tinctures too. It soothes the sinuses and can be the best thing for hurting ears, when nothing else works.
Mullein (Verbascum thapsus). In a variety of ways, Mullein is the herb you want around if you have TMJ because of how it helps with the symptoms– which is wonderful, because it grows practically everywhere. If you are harvesting this medicine, take care to do so in a site where Mullein is not crowded or in a disturbed urban area; it usually means that the Mullein will contain a high level of pollutants. The more rural and alone Mullein is, the more potent and clean it will be. Either the first year leaves, or yellow blossoms are what you want. I have not worked with Mullein root as of yet, but I can make some assumptions on how it could be applicable. Root tincture would probably be perfect in a Neti rinse!
Either steep the blossoms in a pure, organic oil base, or find some way to get your hand on Mullein Blossom Oil. A few drops in each ear while laying on your side helps. Once you wait for the oil to get deep in there, lay on you back so the oil can go further into the eustachian tubes. The relief is quite quick and immediate. Using Mullein Blossom Oil works especially well right after doing a steam, bath, or shower, since the hot helps open up your sinuses, tubes, and relaxes the muscles, helping the oil get in where it needs to be.
-Herbs for Anxiety/Stress/Tension. The leading medical knowledge on Temperomandibular Joint Disorder and bruxism points to anxiety, stressful lifestyle, and lack of stability and relaxation in one’s life as the number one culprit and cause. So incorporating nervines, sedatives, tension-reducing and calming herbs overall is absolutely called for, and can really help to alleviate the source of the problem. Certain ones are better than others, I have found, but everyone is different. I would recommend you elect your favorite tension-tamer and use it on a daily basis. Here are the ones that helped me:
Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata). This brilliant plant is native to Iowa and easy to pinpoint and harvest. It is useful in more ways than one for TMJ, one of them being tension relief and anxiety issues. Daily doses of a tincture of the flowers, leaves, or root (1 dropper, up to 3x/day) helped relieve my tension that was associated with and led up to the muscle in my jaw being pulled so tight, resulting in a clenched bite. I also happen to have shoulder pain on one side along with my own TMJ problem—so for using Blue Vervain, having jaw and shoulder pain together is a good signature for this herb.
It can also help with the headaches, both sinus and muscular, that occur so often with TMJ if taken daily over time. I find that I prefer a flower tincture the most, as the root can be a bit too strong in these cases and can cause some unwanted hormonal side effects. Other Verbenas, like Verbena officinalis and Verbena stricta, can be helpful.
Agrimony (Agrimonia eupatoria, gryposepala, parviflora). This plant was perhaps the most useful herb for the type of tension that my TMJ stemmed from. It eases tension without being too drying, which can exacerbate the inflammation of the sinuses and the stiff jaw joint. It has a gentle and yet noticeable effect over time, and it tastes great! The tincture I used featured a blend of European and Native Agrimony and it tasted like a subtle, soft raspberry leaf. Within just a few weeks I noticed tension starting to release. One night, the muscles of my jaw became so relaxed, I couldn’t find my mouth guard in the morning! The usual pressure of my bite did not keep the mouth guard in properly, and I didn’t wake up with a headache of any sort, or felt my teeth had been grinding or clenching. If kept up regularly, Agrimony is of great help.
-Herbs for the Musculoskeletal Aspect. Temperomandibular Joint Disorder is an issue that arises from tension usually, but the way it manifests is plainly in the muscles. Especially if you have TMJ as the result of injury, not tension, you need herbs that more directly help that part of it, and taking nervines or sedatives won’t help you as much. You need something to help you with those muscles.
TMJ, while it is an issue of the jaw, is easily a problem that spreads to the neck, shoulder, and back, as all of those muscles are in some way connected. Some of us who suffer TMJ have shoulder, back, or neck pain. Something like a back, neck, or even spine injury can lead up to TMJ, as a muscle out of place there pulls down on others and finally pulling down on the jaw muscle, making it tense and tight. Such tightness contributes to the jaw joint eventually popping out of place. I like to think of it like closing the blinds– if you pull one muscle down, it may cause others higher up to contract, which is basically what TMJ experts describe.
Pleurisy Root/Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa). I did not try this one firsthand, but I would certainly recommend TMJ sufferers try it, if they can get their hands on it. Similarly to Solomon’s Seal, this plant helps the joints produce more synovial fluid, thus easing pain on the joints. Typically, Butterfly Weed is used in cases of osteoarthritis. Tincture or salve, in the same manner of Solomon’s Seal, can be used.
Trembling Aspen (Populus tremuloides). This is not a remedy I myself have worked with, but an herbalist Christine Guttadauria from up in the Pontiac area of Quebec recommends an infused oil of the young bark of the Trembling Aspen tree. It can be turned likewise into a salve, and placed on achy, inflamed areas, especially the jaw joint. She also says it is exceptional at keeping the tension at bay. As such, if you do not have access to the Trembling Aspen, one could turn to other members of the Willow/Poplar family: White Willow, Balsam Poplar, Cottonwood, perhaps even the Birch or other Aspens.
If you have any questions about using herbs to help with TMJ, feel free to contact me by email ~ Adrian White, Deer Nation Herbalist ~ firstname.lastname@example.org
For some good sources on Temperomandibular Joint Disorder, and what it is all about, here are some links from professionals, experts, doctors and dentists who deal with the issue. These also number among some of my resources:
Jaw-Dropping Facts about TMJ/TMD Disorders ~ Delta Dental
TMJ Disorders ~ National Institute of Dental and Craniofascial Research
Smart Guard Night Guard ~ Relief from Bruxism/TMJ
An Aching Jaw Leads to a World of Medical Uncertainty ~ The New York Times
Best Treatment of TMJ May Be Nothing ~ The New York Times
Personal Observation, Empirical Experience. A Massage Therapist’s Guide to Pathology: 4th Edition by Ruth Werner. The Book of Herbal Wisdom by Matthew Wood. Christine L., Quebec Herbalist.