When people experience jaw and upper back pain, they may be inclined to consider the two as separate occurrences. However, the various muscular and nerve connections between the head, neck and upper back give reason to consider the possibility that jaw and upper back pain are related.
Jaw pain often indicates temporomandibular joint (TMJ) dysfunction. The TMJ joins the jawbone to the skull on each side of the face. When this joint is misaligned or irritated a host of symptoms can arise, including jaw pain, toothaches, headaches and ear pain. TMJ dysfunction typically involves pain and/or clicking of the joint when moving the jaw.
However, it is possible that jaw pain is actually caused by dysfunction in the musculature of the upper back and neck. There are two main ways that jaw and upper back pain can be related.
1. Forward Head Posture
Forward head posture is a fairly common postural dysfunction. The most obvious and self-explanatory symptom of this posture is the head positioned in front of the body’s midline. This change causes the rest of the spine to shift as well, with the upper back leaning backward and the hips tilting forward to facilitate balance.
Forward head is primarily caused by poor postural habits and is becoming more common today with the use of computers and small, handheld technological devices. Forward head posture most noticeably affects the muscles in the back of the neck, namely the trapezius. This large muscle extends from the mid-back out to the shoulders and up through the neck. The upper trapezius must tense up to hold the head upright. Chronically tense muscles are prone to soreness, fatigue and spasm.
The upper back and neck muscles aren’t the only ones affected by forward head posture; the muscles that support the base of the jaw (digastric and hyoid) are also shortened and tightened, pulling the jawbone back as the shortened trapezius pulls the head up to face horizontally. This muscular tension can create jaw pain.
Correcting postural dysfunction caused by chronically tense muscles requires myofascial release to elongate shortened muscles and targeted exercise to build strength where it is lacking.
2. Trigger Points
The mechanism of referred pain is not precisely understood. Theories exist, some concerning neurological miscommunication in the presence of pain signals. However, the reality of referred pain is firmly known. See www.pressurepointer.com to learn about referred pain patterns of trigger points.
Trigger points in the upper trapezius are known to refer pain to the head, face and neck. Trigger points can be caused by chronic tension of the muscle, such as seen with forward head posture. They can also occur from repetitive use. If you have a knot, or a number of knots, in your trapezius, consider the possibility that these are referring pain to your jaw. Trigger point massage or self-myofascial release can resolve trigger points.
The “Supple Leopard” by Dr. Kelly Starrett is the go to book for trigger point therapy. Looking through a lot of different systems and buying all kinds of devices can not compare to this book. The only “extra” you will need to invest in is a yoga matt and lacrosse balls to release those trigger points. Those will cost about 10$ on Amazon.com. I release trigger points all over the place because I have scoliosis. Therefore the frequency and amount of time is dependent on you and your condition. However, it is the cheapest alternative to having massage or another practitioner help you to remove painful knots.