Bite Right

Injuries or illnesses of the jaw, head or neck can have dramatic effects on performance

Published July 15, 2011 03:05

Bite Right
Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez

Teeth grinding, jaw clenching and sleeping on your stomach are examples of subconscious habits (without purposeful thinking) that may contribute to injuries and negatively impact your sport performance. On a conscious level (purposeful acts) it may be your frequent gum chewing, eating crispy apples or cracking sunflower seeds or hard sweets that have a similar effect on your injury risk and sport performance. How is that?

Your Jaw. The jaw (mandible) is directly involved with each of these activities and the jaw is directly related to the posture and function of the head and neck.
• The head houses the visual and vestibular (balance) systems, which are key contributors to function and body performance.
• The neck (cervical spine) is important for posture and spinal alignment, which provides the stable base on which your body moves.

What's Behind that Dazzling Smile?

Your mouth is more than just lips, teeth, and a tongue. It is a complex relationship among many anatomical structures: bones, cartilage, ligaments, muscles, tendons, nerves, blood vessels, glands, and fascia. It is a vital part of the respiratory system (breathing), digestive system (eating) and communication (talking and facial expressions).

1. Bones
Temporal Bones (2) = on each side of head near ear
Mandible = lower jaw bone forming the chin
Maxilla = upper lip bone
2. Ligaments: connect bones together to form joints, the primary joint is the Temporo-Mandibular Joint (TMJ), which allows the mouth to open, close, and move in and out and side to side. In addition to the ligament complex that connects the jaw bone to the skull, there is a cartilage disc inside the joint to improve the fit and alignment of the bones and provide cushion.
3. Muscles: Four very powerful paired (left and right) muscles are the primary movers of the jaw - temporalis, masseter, lateral pterygoid, and medial pterygoid. Twelve other muscles are involved with mouth function and 36 muscles are used for facial expressions!

Complicated Relationships
The human body is a complex machine that allows body parts and systems to run independently and dependently. There are checks, balances, and back-up systems in place. There are important structures that may cause pain and dysfunction in the head, neck, shoulder and jaw region:
Facial nerve: has five main branches that serve the face and neck so irritation of one part can cause dysfunction in another, eg: tooth infection (may irritate the mandibular branch of the nerve) and cause neck stiffness (cervical branch).
Sternocleidomastoid muscle: one end attaches to the head near the TMJ and the other at the base of the clavicle (collar bone) and sternum (breast bone), thus controlling head and neck movement as well as affecting shoulder mobility and breathing.
Scalp/Myofascial connections: the temporalis muscles of the TMJ also connect with the scalp (thick skin on top of head) which connects with the occipital muscles on the back of the head where it meets the neck, affecting the joints that allow head turning and nodding.


Injuries or illnesses of the jaw, head or neck may have dramatic effects on function & performance.
• Dental injuries and conditions such as a broken tooth or grinding teeth, if left untreated for too long can lead to nerve irritation and muscle guarding which in turn may disturb balance and cause pain or and/or misalignment of the bite/jaw, head and neck.
• TMJ sprain or dysfunction (a click near the ear when open/close mouth) caused by trauma such as a direct blow or fall or biting something too hard is often associated with protective muscle guarding, which does not allow the mouth to open properly causing breathing and chewing difficulty.
• Respiratory illness or conditions which make breathing difficult, especially during physical activity, are often compensated through open-mouth breathing and use of assessory respiratory muscles including those of the neck such as the scalenes which may tighten and cause headaches, jaw or rib dysfunctions.
• Neck sprains or strains such as whiplash or "wry neck" create muscle guarding and imbalances that alter head posture causing altered vision and balance as well as limited head and neck range of motion.
• It may not be an injury but one of those habits already mentioned causing the trouble:
Sleeping on stomach - stretches muscles and joints on one side of neck & tightens the other, pushes jaw to one side stretching the TMJ ligament complex, decreases oxygen intake & blood flow to the brain by putting the throat and arteries in a strained position. No wonder you wake up with a headache or sore neck!
Unresolved stress - chronic stress , anger or anxiety may contribute to habits such as grinding teeth, biting nails or disturbed sleep which can tighten muscles and structures around the jaw, head and neck.

Treatment Tips

As with all injuries and illnesses, PREVENTION is the key to avoiding the pain and dysfunction associated with your jaw, but if a problem arises, be proactive and address it as soon as possible.

DENTIST - see a dentist promptly for any toothache, infection or injury; have your jaw alignment assessed and discuss the use of a night mouth guard to protect against grinding or clenching; and have a standard dental exam and cleaning 2 x / year.
PHYSIOTHERAPY - manual treatment to eliminate dysfunction and misalignment including soft tissue release, acupuncture or dry needling, and craniosacral techniques; modalities like laser or ultrasound to reduce inflammation; stabilization exercises; and postural correction education.
SELF CARE - support your neck with a pillow or towel roll while sleeping on your side or back and use one for sitting on long trips (plane or car); brush and floss your teeth daily; avoid chewing large and hard objects; use relaxation exercises to reduce jaw clenching and teeth grinding.

The contents of the Health site are for informational purposes only and should not be treated as medical, psychiatric, psychological, health care or health management advice. The materials herein are not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this site. Reliance on any information provided herein is solely at your own risk.

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