Hands-on Relief

By Matt Hawkins

The next time your jaw hurts, you might consider consulting a physical therapist. Emerging research by Bradley faculty and students showed a quick neck manipulation, followed by several weeks of at-home exercises, may be an effective treatment for pain relief.

Physical therapy assistant professor Bre Reynolds and doctor of physical therapy students discovered in a two-year study that PT treatments to the cervical spine and tempromandibular joint (TMJ) — the points the jaw connects to the skull — decreased patients’ pain and improved their jaw and neck function.

Bradley-based studies the past two years tracked 20 patients with jaw joint pain. The average patient complained of pain for nine years with accompanying muscle tightness or weakness. Many had difficulty chewing and yawning when they entered the study.

“Nobody wants to be in pain that long,” said Claire Tostovarsnik ’16 DPT ’18, of Spring Valley, Ill. “It’s wonderful we found a potential solution to people’s issues. It felt good to see patients doing better when they came back at the end of their treatments.”

Physical therapists can treat TMJ pain because the joint is like the center of an anatomical Venn diagram. The TMJ includes teeth and joints, which means either dentists or physical therapists can provide care. Physical therapists can address neck pain and headaches commonly associated with TMJ issues because of issues with nerves in the neck. Dentists can treat teeth and oral matters.

A licensed physical therapist treated patients with small neck manipulations similar to a common chiropractic neck adjustment. Additionally, patients received exercises to stretch and strengthen muscles. Patients also learned tips for better posture, as a forward lean known as “texting neck” is a common cause of spinal discomfort and may contribute to jaw pain.

The study is one piece of a larger puzzle investigating new treatments for common aches. Thrust joint manipulation, as the technique is called, will need to survive a rigorous review process before clinicians deem it an acceptable treatment for TMJ problems. Then, should American Physical Therapy Association experts approve it, techniques will be listed in official clinical practice guidelines.

“I didn’t realize what a feat it would be to research our amazingly complex bodies,” said Amanda Baker ’18, of Neoga, Ill., who also participated in the study. “Having this experience, I want to take advantage of everything other researchers have done before me.”

Physical therapists currently use thrust joint manipulation for headaches, neck and upper arm pain. Its application to TMJ pain is relatively new, as people with the pain seek dental help and don’t realize other treatment options.

Reynolds, with 17 years of clinical practice, has conducted two TMJ pain treatment studies. The thrust joint manipulation study will continue under her guidance, as will another student project that is measuring patients’ perceptions of changes in jaw pain and function.

DPT students take measurements for a jaw pain study. (Photo by Duane Zehr)