Many of us experience jaw pain or popping, teeth grinding, ringing ears, chronic headaches, and other issues related to muscle tension and mis-alignment in the temporomandibular joint (TMJ). Many of us also know that massage therapy can be very effective in easing these complaints, and in restoring healthy alignment and range of motion to the jaw.
Over the years, however, myself and many other bodyworkers have noticed repeatedly that relief from jaw symptoms is amplified and extended by working not only in the muscles of the head, neck, and jaw itself, but by working additionally with the muscles of the pelvis and hip . Experienced bodyworkers widely acknowledge that there is a strong, if somewhat mysterious, connection between the jaw and pelvis, and that tension and mis-alignment patterns in the two areas very often “mirror” each other. To take a general example, this means that if the right side of the jaw is more clenched than the left, so the right side hip muscles are often more tense than those on the left. Similarly, if the mandible (jaw bone) protrudes forward, it is common for the pelvis to also be tilted or jutting forward from its more normal, comfortable position.
Several scientific studies have supported this connection between the jaw and hips, providing a more concrete scientific basis for the observations bodyworkers have been making all along. One study, on the effects on hip pain of myofascial release massage techniques performed at the jaw, strongly suggested that clenching the jaw increased hip pain while massage therapy on the jaw relieved hip pain . Another study measured cranial (skull) angles in relation to angles of the spine and pelvis, and very reliably correlated jaw angle with both pelvic alignment and with curvature of the lower back .
Research like this is undoubtedly helpful, in validating and refining what we as practitioners have observed, and especially in reminding us how working on the jaw and hips together can help improve treatment results and decrease pain in both areas. The reason why this connection exists, though, is not truly answered by these studies and remains somewhat mysterious to the world of science.
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Several different bodywork approaches provide more insight into the basis for this clear hip-jaw connection, and when taken together create a picture of jaw pain as stemming from deep in the body-mind. Using postural analysis, we can see how spending most of the day sitting at a computer, for example, can lead to chronic shortening of the hip and neck flexors (among other issues) and how the forward head position this often creates can put stress on the jaw. Exploring the theory of CranioSacral therapy provides further insight into the ways that more subtle postural issues, emotional habits, or injuries in one area might contribute to restriction in another; it teaches that seemingly minute restrictions in fluid and tissue along the spinal column can have echoing effects on pain and range of motion which can be just as significant as the impact of major muscle groups .
Following the idea that our emotional experiences can play a role in physical pain, many energy work practitioners have suggested that the areas of the hips and jaw tend to hold on to similar “muscle memories.” In my experience these areas often carry our very deepest traumas, an observation which can be explained both through energy theories and through conventional physiology. While receiving work in these areas, we can often pinpoint the memory of visceral emotions such as fear specifically in the illiopsoas muscles, the tongue, and the interior muscles of the TMJ which protect the tongue. Some energy work theorists suggest that the illiopsoas muscles and the tongue are unique in their working not only for motor function but also as sensory organs, which in addition to their connections with the second and fifth chakras may help to explain their tendency to hold some of the most volatile energy .
Understanding the physiology of stress is another way to think about the role of these particular muscles in capturing fear and other intense emotions. When we experience fear, for example, a common defensive response is to instinctively clench core muscles in order to protect our most vulnerable areas, the belly and throat. When contracted so suddenly it is often difficult for muscles to relax again completely, and when they stay tense this can feed a cycle which keeps the brain in a state of stress and in turn reinforces tension in the illiopsoas and other deep muscles. There is a wealth of mainstream medical research on the many physiological effects of the fight-or-flight stress response, including many studies which focus on the way stress hormones effect the brain and suggest that emotionally (and therefore hormonally) charged experiences may actually change the shape of our brains. This theory helps to explain why it can be difficult to “turn off” the physiological stress response . Massage therapy has proven to help relax defensive muscles, such as in the hips and jaw, which in turn can signal to the brain that a fight-or-flight state is no longer necessary . Neuroplasticity research such as this also begins to explain how the experience of emotion can be connected to a physical area or movement, supporting the experience of many bodyworkers that touching or moving muscles which contracted as part of a stress response can remind the brain of the original stress and trigger an emotional release, after which deep relaxation often follows.
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Scientists and bodyworkers agree that the jaw and pelvis are deeply connected, and through our experience with clients we can begin to formulate some theories about why and how. But if my experience as a massage therapist has taught me anything it is that despite the often striking patterns and similarities amongst my clients, every body really is different and there can be no single or simple explanation for the ways we each respond to life and the stresses it presents. What we as practitioners can do is continue to treat jaw and hip complaints together in order to increase our effectiveness—because while the roots of a problem are always interesting to discuss and often shed light on the issue, as bodyworkers we are lucky: we can often relieve pain even when we don’t fully understand the complexities of its origin.
-Eliza Hofkosh-Hulbert, BA., LMT.