As a practitioner focused on treating patients who suffer from the impact of TMJ problems, I am confronted with new challenges every day. One particularly challenging group of patients is women who suffer from postpartum TMJ pain. Here are some of my thoughts on why this population of patients is so commonly seen in my office.
The 3 Big Causes of Postpartum TMJ Pain
1- Sleep Disruption
Everyone knows that the presence of a newborn is incredibly disruptive to sleep. A fragmented, diminished and unpredictable sleep schedule leads to poor quality sleep. When sleep deprivation continues over many months or even years, pain symptoms can develop throughout the body as endorphin levels drop. Joint and muscle symptoms are common throughout the body including the jaw muscles and TM joints.
If headaches in the temples are a common morning symptom suspicion of sleep bruxism must be considered. In addition, if the new mom does not quickly shed her pregnancy weight, she may be predisposed to airway problems, which further fragment sleep quality. Sometimes lingering postpartum TMJ pain is so severe that new moms seek many medical evaluations, most of them unnecessary other than for piece of mind.
2- Neck & Shoulder Strain & Fatigue
Next is the act of carrying around small babies. It seems easy at first but gets more and more difficult as a child’s weight increases. Carrying around the baby can be a challenge for anyone, particularly for small women. A 20-pound baby can cause neck strain and fatigue, which can result in pain. These neck problems very often initiate jaw problems. And thus the cycle begins.
Carrying a baby isn’t the only cause of neck and shoulder strain. Car seat challenges, pushing and folding heavy strollers (especially while holding the child in one arm), talking on the phone or cooking while holding the baby, and time spent sitting on the floor all add up to the potential for muscle problems to arise.
3- Emotional Issues
Last, but not least, the emotional issues than often arise following childbirth can be a significant cause of postpartum TMJ pain. Yes, having a baby is one of the most cherished events in life. But life as we know it is forever changed. For women whose independence started with high school graduation, college, grad school, and then career, the sudden loss of control that the new baby brings can cause tremendous emotional upheaval.
Plus, it’s no easy chore to be on call 24/7, even for the most hardy. For working moms the stress is two-fold. The hours away from her baby can create anxiety and the feeling of “being out of control.” Many new moms also sense a tremendous amount of guilt for being away from the baby every day.
Attending to poor sleepers, colicky babies, picky eaters and constant crying requires skills that must be learned, and there’s no manual.
As the challenges of motherhood continue, the limbic system (the part of the brain where emotions are formed) ultimately stimulates the fight or flight response and that gives rise to increased muscle tone, shallow and fast breathing, and daytime behaviors such as raised shoulders, furrowed brows, lip tension and clenched teeth, just to name a few. The end result, of course, can be the emergence of jaw pain, jaw stiffness, and/or headaches.
Help Is Available
There are no easy solutions for all of these challenges. However, when a new mom arrives at my practice suffering from TMJ problems, I have an arsenal of ways to help her get relief. They include:
- Diaphragmatic breathing techniques
- Jaw and neck exercises
- Help to improve sleep hygiene
- Strategies to address awake and sleep bruxism
- Meditation recommendations (TM is extremely helpful)
- Referrals to Alexander and/or Feldenkrais specialists
I also encourage new moms to ask for help from their parents, siblings or even their friends. Taking some breaks from the daily obligations of caring for a newborn can go a long way to feeling better.
If you have a new baby and are suffering from postpartum TMJ, help is available. To find a dentist in your area that focuses on these types of problems, visit The American Academy of Orofacial Pain at http://www.aaop.org/.
(This is a follow-up to a previous post 3 Reasons Why TMJ Problems Get Worse During Pregnancy