TMJ and Neck Pain: Understanding the Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments

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tmj and neck pain

Jaw dysfunction can refer to pain and strain on the delicate muscles and nerves of the neck region, leading to debilitating headaches and stiffness. If you’ve been experiencing neck pain along with symptoms like jaw clicking, limited jaw movement, and headaches, your condition may be related to TMJ. 

At Kaly, we often see patients who develop neck pain stemming from undiagnosed TMJ issues. We’re here to help you get on top of this issue. 

We’ll start by explaining what the temporomandibular joint is and how it works. Then we’ll go over the most common neck symptoms associated with TMJ dysfunction. We’ll also discuss why the jaw and neck are so closely connected, and how issues with the temporomandibular joint end up causing cervical and headache pain. 

What is TMJ?

The temporomandibular joint (TMJ functions as the hinge that connects your jawbone to your skull. There are two TMJ joints, one on each side, that work together to facilitate all jaw movements. The TMJ is a complex joint that allows you to open and close your mouth, chew, swallow, and speak.

The joint itself consists of the condyle (ball) at the top of the mandible bone, which fits into the mandibular fossa (socket) of the temporal bone. A flexible disc between these bones acts as a cushion and enables smooth TMJ movements. 

Ligaments surround the joint capsule and attach jaw muscles like the masseter and temporalis, which control the joint. Other facial and jaw muscles like the pterygoids also connect to and move the TMJ.

A study by the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research explains that injury to the jaw or temporomandibular joint can lead to some TMDs. It also mentions that habits such as jaw clenching and gum chewing can contribute to the disorder. The institute also suggests that the differences in TMJ structure and mechanics between females and males may play a role in the prevalence of TMDs.

Specialists at Kaly suggest TMJ disorder arises when this intricate jaw system is thrown off balance. Problems like arthritis, grinding, clenching, injury, or bite misalignment can impair normal TMJ function and mobility. This leads to pain, inflammation, popping, clicking, and other troubling symptoms.

What are the symptoms of TMJ neck pain?

TMJ dysfunction manifests in an array of symptoms, many of which involve neck pain and stiffness. Here are some of the most common neck-related complaints we see in patients with TMJ problems:

Healthline explains that TMJ pain can cause headaches, which may be felt in the temples, forehead, and back of the head. It also mentions that TMJ disorders can cause neck and shoulder pain, as the jaw muscles are connected to the neck and shoulder muscles.

  • Aching pain or soreness in the neck and shoulders

TMJ Texas explains that TMJ disorders can cause neck and shoulder pain due to the interconnected nature of the jaw, neck, and shoulder muscles. When the jaw is misaligned or in pain, it can cause tension and strain in the muscles that extend to the shoulders

  • Muscle tenderness and tightness in the neck and upper back

An NCBI study found that tender points in the neck are common in patients with temporomandibular disorders (TMD) and that there is a significant correlation between neck disability, jaw dysfunction, and muscle tenderness in subjects with and without chronic TMD.

Other symptoms that may be felt based on Kaly’s experience include:

  • Reduced range of motion when turning or tilting the head
  • Pain or tension that worsens with chewing or talking
  • Clicking, cracking, or grinding noises from the neck and jaw

In many cases, these neck issues arise with other classic TMJ disorder symptoms like a locked jaw, popping jaw, or pain while eating or yawning. Based on our experience, identifying accompanying TMJ symptoms is key to pinpointing the root cause of neck pain.

What are the areas affected by TMJ neck pain?

The neuromuscular connections between the jaw and neck mean TMJ problems can spark pain and tightness throughout the cervical region. Here are some specific areas often affected:

AreaEffects of TMJ Dysfunction
Sternocleidomastoid musclesThese muscular ropes run down both sides of the neck and connect directly to the mastoid process behind the ear. TMJ inflammation and dysfunction tends to irritate the SCM muscles, causing local pain and spasms.
Cervical spineThe vertebrae, discs, nerves, and facet joints of the neck can all be impacted by muscular TMJ pain. Poor head positioning due to TMJ problems adds increased strain on the cervical spine.
Trapezius and levator scapulaeThe neck and shoulder muscles become overworked and knotted up due to TMJ strain. Trigger points result in restricted neck mobility.
Head and neck nervesFacial nerves like the trigeminal nerve have branches that innervate both the TMJ and surrounding neck muscles. Nerve irritation makes headaches and neck aches worse.
Throat and larynxPeople with TMJ dysfunction often have pain that radiates up into the larynx, pharynx, and throat areas. This comes from muscle tension and neural feedback.

Can TMJ cause neck pain?

tmj and neck pain

Absolutely. Based on our clinical experience, temporomandibular joint disorders are a very common source of cervical pain and stiffness

A study titled “Jaw Dysfunction Is Associated with Neck Disability and Muscle Tenderness in Subjects with and without Chronic Temporomandibular Disorders” found that temporomandibular disorders (TMD) are commonly associated with other conditions of the head and neck region, including cervical spine disorders and headache. 

The presence of neck pain was shown to be associated with TMD 70% of the time. The study also found that patients with TMD often had neck muscle tenderness in the sternocleidomastoid and upper trapezius as well as other cervical and shoulder muscles

Here’s a bit more about the mechanisms behind TMJ-induced neck pain:

  • The SCM neck muscles are continuous with the masseter muscles used for chewing. Shortened masseter muscles from TMJ strain pull on and irritate the SCMs.
  • Jaw misalignment alters head posture, placing increased pressure on the cervical spine and surrounding soft tissues.
  • Guarding and splinting of the painful jaw leads to overuse and fatigue in the suboccipital neck muscles.
  • Neural plasticity allows pain signals to radiate up the trigeminal nerve network from the TMJ to the occipital and cervical nerves.
  • Chronic inflammation in the temporomandibular joint spreads to nearby neck structures.

In essence, the interconnectedness of the jaw and neck means that issues with the TMJ transfer mechanical strain and nociceptive signals to the cervical region. Seeking treatment for the underlying TMJ disorder is key to addressing referred TMJ neck pain.

Can TMJ cause neck and shoulder pain?

It’s very common for TMJ disorder to cause secondary pain and tightness in the neck and shoulders. The trapezius muscle is continuous with jaw muscles like the temporalis. Additionally, the referral patterns of trigeminal nerve branches that innervate the TMJ can span down into the shoulder. 

A study conducted among musicians, which was published on the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) website, found that 52.5% of the participants reported pain in the neck and shoulder area, and 18.3% reported TMJ pain. The study suggested that playing a musical instrument that loads the masticatory system can cause complaints in the muscles of mastication or the temporomandibular joints (TMJs), leading to temporomandibular disorders (TMDs).

Beverly Hills TMJ and Headache Pain provides information on how certain muscles can refer pain into the TMJ. For instance, the clavicular head of the sternocleidomastoid muscle, which turns the head side to side, can refer pain into the ear, behind the ear, to the forehead, and to the opposite forehead. Similarly, the sternal head of the sternocleidomastoid muscle can refer pain in front of the ear, behind the ear, to the forehead, to the cheek, to the chin, into the eye, under the jaw, and into the breastbone.

Guarding and splinting due to jaw pain also increase mechanical strain on the upper back and shoulders. Problems like muscle trigger points and joint dysfunction can arise in the shoulders as a result. According to our experience, proper assessment and management of TMJ dysfunction is critical for relieving associated neck and shoulder symptoms.

Can TMJ cause pain in the neck and throat?

Yes, TMJ disorder frequently causes pain that radiates up from the jaw into the upper neck and throat regions. Several factors are at play here:

  • The glossopharyngeal, vagus, and hypoglossal nerves connect the TMJ to the throat. Inflammation and compression of these nerves can refer to pain signals.

A study published on PubMed titled “Acute temporomandibular joint pain-dysfunction syndrome: neuro-otologic and electromyographic study” supports the claim that the glossopharyngeal, vagus, and hypoglossal nerves connect the TMJ to the throat. The study found that patients with acute TMJ pain-dysfunction syndrome had hypesthesia (reduced sensitivity to touch) of the glossopharyngeal and second cervical nerves, and motor paralysis of the superior laryngeal branch of the vagus nerve.

  • Muscle tension and spasm spreads from the overworked chewing muscles up into the throat and larynx.

The Michigan Head & Neck Institute‘s blog post titled “TMJ Throat Tightness” discusses that muscle tension and spasms spread from the overworked chewing muscles up into the throat and larynx. It explains that many people suffering from TMJ disorder report trouble swallowing as one of their symptoms. This is due to the anterior digastric muscles, which loop around the hyoid bone, becoming tight or foreshortened, causing TMJ trouble swallowing.

  • Poor head posture from TMJ problems adds pressure to the soft tissues of the front neck.

A study titled “Effect of Starting Posture on Three-Dimensional Jaw and Head Movement” found that adopting a slumped sitting posture, which can be associated with poor head posture, was linked to increased head and neck flexion, forward head translation, and increased cervical extensor muscle activity compared to other sitting postures. 

This study also found that posture can affect the three-dimensional movement of the jaw when opening, which could have implications for the development of TMJ and neck problems in some individuals.

Can TMJ cause ear and neck pain?

Ear pain in conjunction with neck stiffness or headache is a hallmark sign of temporomandibular dysfunction. The TMJ has direct anatomical links to the middle and inner ear through the mandibular and discomalleolar ligaments. Additionally, the auriculotemporal nerve supplies both the TMJ joint and the ear canal structures as suggested in the journal Pain Medicine.

When the TMJ complex is inflamed or impaired, these connections transmit pain signals to the ear that are often coupled with neck ache. TMJ problems can also disrupt proper Eustachian tube function, potentially leading to pressure buildup and ear discomfort. 

The TMJ’s anatomical connections to the middle and inner ear are confirmed by a study on the discomalleolar ligament, which extends from the posterointernal portion of the TMJ disc and reaches the malleus of the middle ear.

From our experience, treating the underlying TMJ disorder is crucial for relieving associated ear and neck pain issues. It’s not uncommon for patients with TMJ disorder to experience pain in the neck and shoulders. This is related to the muscle tension that leads to and is caused by TMJ disorder. The University of Rochester Medical Center also confirms that TMJ disorders can cause pain spreading to the neck.

Can TMJ cause stiffness and pain in the neck?

TMJ disorder frequently manifests as muscular pain and greatly reduced range of motion in the neck, especially upon waking. This occurs for several key reasons:

  • The jaw joint is in the closed, clenched position at night, which exacerbates muscle tension and spasm in the neck due to anatomical linkages.
  • Reduced mobility from TMJ inflammation leads to secondary effects of stiffness and soreness in the upper cervical spine.
  • Nerve impingement and neuropathy stemming from the TMJ can heighten nociception from neck muscles and restrict motion.
  • Sleeping in awkward positions to accommodate the painful jaw adds mechanical strain to cervical tissues.

A study by StatPearls – NCBI Bookshelf explains the anatomical structures of the stomatognathic system, which includes the temporomandibular joint (TMJ), jaw and mandible, muscle tissues and tendons, dental arches, salivary glands, as well as the hyoid bone and the muscles of the neck. The TMJ works in synergy with all these structures. The article reviews the manual approach to TMJ, which is often used as a support for joint rehabilitation, in synergy with the doctor.

According to Kaly specialists’ observations, proper sleep posture along with physical therapy and stress reduction tactics can help relieve TMJ-related neck tightness and discomfort.

Why does TMJ cause neck pain and headaches?

TMJ disorder contributes to headache and neck pain due to the complex anatomical and neurological connections between the temporomandibular joint and the cervical spine. Here’s a more in-depth look:

  • Trigeminal nerve branches relay sensory signals from the TMJ to the upper cervical nerves, producing headaches.
  • Tight jaw muscles like the temporalis and masseter strain interconnected neck muscles like the trapezius, leading to muscle tension headaches.
  • The vagus nerve links the TMJ to the cervical plexus, allowing pain signals to radiate into the neck.
  • Forward head posture and loss of cervical lordosis from TMJ problems increases mechanical strain on the posterior neck.
  • Compensatory overuse of neck and head muscles strains cervical tissues, discs, and joints.
  • Impaired trigeminal nociception from TMJ inflammation sensitizes the upper cervical nerves, causing headaches.
  • Forced jaw positioning to avoid TMJ pain leads to spasm and trigger points in suboccipital neck muscles.

In summary, the intimate neuromuscular and postural connections from the jaw to the upper spine allow TMJ dysfunction to directly contribute to many types of cervicogenic headache and neck pain.

How does TMJ affect the cervical spine?

TMJ pain and dysfunction places increased mechanical and neurological strain on the cervical vertebrae, discs, nerves, and supporting ligaments:

  • Forward head carriage to protect the TMJ adds more compressive load onto the facet joints and neural tissue.
  • Loss of cervical lordosis and restricted cervical ROM leads to impaired spinal mobility.
  • Upper cervical nerve inflammation due to TMJ referral patterns may cause radicular pain.
  • Misaligned bite or jaw function alters biomechanics through the craniocervical junction.
  • Cervical muscle spasm induces painful trigger points and tightness in neck tissues.
  • Joint swelling and guarding from TMJ inflammation contributes to cervical spondylosis and disc degeneration over time.

How does TMJ affect the sternocleidomastoid muscle?

The sternocleidomastoid (SCM) muscles of the anterior neck are often profoundly affected by TMJ problems due to their direct linkage to the jaw joint. Specific effects include:

  • Trigger points and taut muscle bands in the SCM due to strain from chewing muscles.
  • Impaired jaw motion increases the work of opening the mouth, fatiguing the SCMs.
  • Spasm and shortening of the SCMs as a protective mechanism against TMJ pain.
  • SCM nerve impingement and inflammation due to anatomical proximity to the TMJ.
  • Knots and stiffness concentrated in the SCM bellies near the mastoid process.
  • Headache at the occiput due to irritated SCM myofascial trigger points.

How to help and treat TMJ neck pain?

There are various conservative treatment approaches to help manage TMJ-related neck pain, such as physical therapy, massage, gentle stretches, hot/cold therapy, and over-the-counter pain medication. Seeing a dentist or TMJ specialist is recommended to address the root dysfunction.

Temporomandibular joint disorder neck pain responds best to tailored treatment plans that address the underlying structural alignment and muscle imbalance issues. 

At Kaly, we’ve found that targeted SCM massage combined with cervical stretches provides significant relief for many TMJ patients suffering from anterior neck pain. Proper head alignment is also key to decompressing the overworked SCMs.

Physical therapy involving manual techniques, postural correction, and specific exercises for the jaw and neck muscles are also often effective. Stress management and pain modalities like dry needling also provide relief. In some cases, bite splints or orthodontic intervention may be necessary.

  • A study conducted by researchers at Eulji University in South Korea found that a 3-week rehabilitation program focusing on the cervical region significantly decreased pain intensity, improved the range of motion of the cervical spine and head posture, and improved the clinical condition of the temporomandibular joint (TMJ) in participants with idiopathic neck pain who did not report TMJ pain.
  • A study conducted at the biomechanics laboratory of the physiotherapy department of Iran University of Medical Sciences found that manual therapy of the upper cervical spine combined with TMJ could be an effective intervention in relieving pain and increasing mouth opening and cervical flexion in patients with TMJ disorders. 
  • Another study aimed to investigate if massage therapy could cause pain relief and/or electromyographic (EMG) changes in patients with myogenic TMD. The study involved TMD patients who were submitted to massage treatment and EMG sessions. The treatment consisted of 15 massage sessions on the face and neck.

These are why experts from Kaly suggest that therapy focusing on the cervical region may have an impact on the structures located in the craniofacial area, including the sternocleidomastoid (SCM) muscle, and provide the appropriate treatment based on it.

What is the best pillow for TMJ and neck pain?

The ideal pillow for alleviating TMJ and neck pain properly supports the head and neck while taking pressure off the jaw joints and muscles.

A study published on PubMed found that a cervical pillow, which maintains an appropriate cervical curvature, can help relieve neck pain and improve sleep quality in individuals with chronic mechanical neck pain.

WebMD cites studies showing that a contoured memory foam pillow can help support the chin in the correct posture, which is particularly beneficial for side sleepers.

Here is an overview of the best pillow options:

Type of PillowBenefits
Cervical contour pillowMaintains natural neck curvature to relieve pressure. Reduces nerve impingement.
Memory foam contour pillowCradles the neck for comfort and support. Adapts to individual shape.
Side sleeper pillowKeeps neck aligned if unable to sleep on back due to TMJ. Prevents twisting neck.
Pillow with TMJ cutoutTakes direct pressure off the temporomandibular joint while supporting the head.

Are there exercises to help TMJ and neck pain?

Yes, neck stretches, controlled jaw exercises, chewing soft foods slowly, gentle resistance when opening the jaw, pulling the jaw downwards/forwards, massaging sore jaw muscles, and walking can provide TMJ relief.

Neck Stretches

  1. Chin tucks – Tuck chin gently towards chest. Hold for 15-30 seconds. Repeat 5-10 times.
  2. Neck rotations – Turn head slowly side to side to stretch neck. Do not over-rotate. Repeat 5-10 times per side.
  3. Side bending stretches – Gently tilt head toward each shoulder to stretch neck. Hold 15-30 seconds on each side.

Jaw and TMJ Exercises

  1. Controlled chewing – Slowly open and close jaw while chewing soft food. Keep smooth motion.
  2. Resisted jaw opening – Use your hand to apply gentle resistance as you open your mouth. Avoid overstretching.
  3. TMJ stretches – Place fingers near ears and gently pull jaw downwards/forwards to stretch joints.
  4. TMJ self-massage – Use knuckles to gently massage sore jaw muscles in circular motions.

General Fitness

  1. Walking – Helps improve cervical and jaw muscle blood flow and mobility. Start with short distances.

Tired of Constant TMJ Neck Pain? Kaly’s Specialists Have Solutions

a doctor examines the patient's tmj and neck pain

We hope this guide provided you with a deeper look at the widespread effects TMJ disorder can have on the cervical spine and neck muscles. While dealing with jaw pain and headaches is frustrating enough, associated neck stiffness can further hamper your quality of life. The good news is that properly diagnosing and treating the root TMJ problem often provides significant relief from referred neck aches.

At Kaly, we connect patients to knowledgeable TMJ specialists and physical therapists that can pinpoint the underlying structural cause of your pain. Our advanced telemedicine platform also allows you to conveniently attend appointments from home. If you’re ready to explore personalized treatment options for your TMJ-related neck pain, our specialists are waiting to help! 

Start your search with us now!


Can wisdom teeth cause neck and shoulder pain?

Yes, wisdom tooth impaction can cause inflammation that spreads from the TMJ to the neck and shoulders, leading to muscle spasms and pain. Consulting an oral surgeon about extraction is recommended.

Can grinding teeth lead to neck pain?

Excessive teeth grinding overworks the TMJ joint and muscles, referring strain to the neck that results in pain and reduced mobility. Wearing a night guard and evaluating stress/sleep can help.