by Lisa Hotaling PT
Craniofacial, TMJ, Pelvic Floor, and LSVT Certified Physical Therapist
When people hear the term “craniofacial therapy” they generally have no idea what that means. Most people have heard of “TMJ”, though, or suffer from headaches, or neck pain at some point in their life. Craniofacial therapists address pain and disorders of the neck, jaw, and head by assessing the interaction of the neck and shoulder girdle with the head and jaw to diagnose and treat pain.
The uppermost vertebrae are closely related to the skull and TMJ joints, so any malalignment in these joints can cause altered movement patterns, changes in posture, weakness and eventually pain, and affect the entire system. Many of these issues begin in childhood with jaw malalignment and untreated dental issues, mouth-breathing, teeth grinding, poor posture, and other bad habits. Later in life, the posture they assume at work all day, or bad habits like nail-biting or resting the chin on the hands while sitting can lead to more problems. Many craniofacial patients present to their therapist with any combination of headaches, facial pain, jaw pain, popping in the jaw with yawning or chewing, or neck pain. Frequently patients have had these problems for years, but never found a clinician who could help resolve their issues. This means they not only live with pain but also become limited in basic activities like eating, grooming/dressing, drinking, housework or yard work. They even see limitations in recreational activities, exercise, social and family interactions.
So how does a craniofacial therapist help their patients? First, the therapist must evaluate the cause of the pain, assess posture and check the alignment of the neck and jaw. A custom treatment plan will include manual therapy, exercises, patient education, modalities or neuromuscular re-education. Manual therapy is used to reduce or reposition the disc in the TMJ, correct spinal alignment in the neck, decrease muscle spasm and stretch tight muscles. Exercises are prescribed to improve posture, correct jaw position, strengthen weak muscles and stretch tight ones. Patient education corrects behaviors that contribute to craniofacial pain, improves posture, and allows the patient to remain pain-free. Modalities like ultrasound or electrical stimulation decrease pain and other symptoms. Neuromuscular therapy re-educates the muscles to improve posture, decrease pain and balance the musculoskeletal system in the upper body.
All of this is done to help patients regain movements that were once painful, and resume activities they were previously unable to do. Letting your therapist know what activities they want back is crucial in helping them create the best strategy to achieve these goals.
Craniofacial therapists work together with dentists and oral surgeons to improve jaw mobility and bite and correct jaw alignment to decrease pain and popping. If you have suffered from jaw pain, popping, headaches or neck pain, ask your doctor for a referral to see a craniofacial therapist! They are your best chance at fixing the problem so you can get your life back!