Sleeping with a TMJ Disorder

TMJ disorder, or simply TMJ, is a condition that occurs in the temporomandibular joint, or the lower part of the jaw. The TMJ is the joint that connects the lower jaw to the temporal bone in the skull and helps you open and close your mouth. Trouble with the muscles surrounding the joint or the joint itself can cause a great deal of painful and uncomfortable symptoms. Causes aren’t exactly known, but risk factors include things like overuse, trauma, and arthritis.

One of the most common complaints among people with TMJ is the pain that happens at night, causing sleep disturbance. For the most part, TMJ can be treated with the “less is more” approach, which is when dentists recommend patients to take preventative measures like stress management, less use by not eating hard foods or chewing gum, mouth splints for teeth grinding, etc. Taking steps and measures to prevent symptoms is the easiest way to treat the condition.

Sleep Position
If you are one who has TMJ symptoms, there are some helpful things you can do to ensure a restful sleep. Position is the most important aspect. You don’t want to add any excess pressure to the jaw, so try not to sleep on your stomach or push your hand or arm up against your jaw. Many tmj specialist and physical therapists recommend side sleeping with appropriate pillows to avoid laying your head on your arm. Lying flat on your back is okay, but not as good as side lying. This is because lying flat increases the chance of jaw clenching and teeth grinding. If you’re a back sleeper, try adding an extra pillow or two to combat the gravitational pull that could cause a clenched jaw, but be sure your neck and spine are supported.

Finding the Right Pillow
Ensure that the pillows you’re using adequately support your head and neck. The pillow should keep your spine straight and your neck in a neutral position while lying sideways. If your shoulders are tight, you could use any extra pillow to hold to your chest. You can also use a pillow between the knees for extra support.

The pillow you choose is very important. The ones that are orthopedic and meant to keep the neck in neutral position aren’t really that comfortable and are extremely expensive. You can “test” the pillows you have or buy by taking one, placing it against the wall and simulating side lying to see if the pillow adequately covers the space between neck and shoulder. Nose, chin, and breastbone should line up.

Other Techniques
Another technique to consider is 5-10 minutes of meditation or relaxation right before lying down for bed. Spend this time focusing your attention on consciously relaxing all the muscles in your face, jaw, neck and shoulders so that you aren’t going into sleep cycles already destined for clenching and grinding. If teeth grinding is the problem, be sure to talk with your dentist about getting a mouth guard or splint to protect both your teeth and your jaw from destruction.