Equine massage for TMJ problems
Photo courtesy of Stephanie Reeves.

An aligned and flexible temporomandibular joint is vital for your horse’s overall health, impacting his digestion, neck, back, balance and more. Massage can be a useful tool to restore proper function in your horse’s TMJ.

A correctly-functioning temporomandibular joint (TMJ) is essential to your horse’s overall well-being. Any misalignment, trauma, inflammation or other problem in his TMJ affects not only his ability to chew, but also his digestion, his balance, the function of his neck and back, and much more. Equine massage is an effective way to help your horse’s TMJ get back to normal function.

TMJ anatomy

To understand your horse’s TMJ and how it impacts his health, it’s important to be familiar with its basic anatomy.

In the simplest of terms, the TMJ connects the mandible (jawbone) to the temporal bone (which forms the forehead). The joint is made up of two compartments separated by an articular disc. The lower portion is a hinge joint that allows the horse to open and close his mouth. The upper portion is a sliding joint that allows him to move his jaw from side to side as well as forward and backward.

Like most joints, the TMJ is surrounded by a joint capsule filled with synovial fluid, and mobilized and stabilized by tendons and ligaments. These, in turn, rely on proper muscle contraction and relaxation in order to work correctly. This area, along with the joint itself, has many nerves running through it. The TMJ is packed very tightly, so any inflammation can cause extreme pain because there is no extra room for swelling. Depending on the cause, TMJ issues can start as minor discomfort and progress to a constant and severe headache.

TMJ issues – causes and effects

Problems with a horse’s TMJ can have more than one cause.

  • Trauma is certainly one, and can result in subluxation (misalignment) or sepsis (infection) in the joint.
  • Horses can get arthritis in the TMJ as a result of dental issues. Horses spend many hours a day grazing and chewing, and if there is a constant imbalance in the mouth, it will put undue stress on the TMJ.
  • Issues such as a bit that doesn’t fit properly, incorrect balance in the feet, and poor saddle fit can also cause problems in the TMJ over time.

TMJ dysfunction is believed to be more common than we realize, so it’s a good idea to be aware of the symptoms and communicate them to your veterinarian if you suspect a problem.

Common clinical signs include pain on palpation of the TMJ or manipulation of the jaw, an enlargement of the joint (which can most easily be observed from the front) and atrophy of one or both masseter muscles.

It is also wise to periodically observe your horse as he eats. Horses chew in a very rhythmic, smooth manner. If you hear any irregularities while your horse chews, or see him dropping feed or tilting his head while eating, or if you find any asymmetries when looking at the teeth, definitely have your veterinarian investigate. If your horse suddenly starts to shake his head, carries his head differently or becomes resistant to the bit, TMJ issues need to be ruled out.

Addressing TMJ problems

Once a diagnosis is made by your veterinarian, there are a few ways to address the issue, depending partly on the cause.

If a dental imbalance is the culprit, rectifying it is the top priority; anything else will only act as a temporary band-aid. If there’s a lot of inflammation, anti-inflammatories can be given temporarily to help reduce discomfort.

In cases of arthritis, corticosteroid injections can be administered into the joint to reduce inflammation. If there is a subluxation, a qualified chiropractor can help resolve it.

Addressing the teeth and TMJ itself may not completely resolve the problem, however. As mentioned previously, soft tissues are associated with healthy TMJ function, and these can remain tight and cause problems on their own.

Ania works on the TMJ, doing gentle jaw mobilizations.

Massage for TMJ

Massage can be a very useful tool for helping to restore proper function to the TMJ, as well as addressing the compensatory issues that occur as a result of any issues. Gentle work right around the joint, as well as jaw mobilizations (carefully moving the jaw side to side), can help release a lot of the tension that builds up in the area. Horses usually lower their heads, blink more, or lick and chew when this area is addressed. Some will even slide their jaws side to side on their own before mobilizations are performed. Many of the muscles in the face, primarily the masseter, can be quite tight and harbor trigger points that need to be released in order for chewing to return to normal.

Gentle massage work right around the joint, as well as jaw mobilizations, can help release a lot of the tension that builds up in the area.

Tension in the jaw can travel further down the body, since a rigid jaw prevents the horse from being loose and supple and from bending correctly. The neck (particularly the poll) and back (all the way to the sacrum) are often also affected. This is the reason why a full body massage is recommended to address TMJ problems as thoroughly as possible, even when the area of concern is quite small. I personally also use a cold laser on any areas of concern at the end of a treatment.

Why is the horse’s TMJ so important?

It can be easy to overlook just how important the TMJ is to your horse’s overall health. We already know how vital it is for a horse to have a properly functioning digestive tract, but correct mastication is a crucial first step in this process.

It can be easy to overlook just how important this small joint is to your horse’s overall health.

Horses spend much of their time grazing and chewing. Not only does TMJ pain prevent them from chewing correctly, it can also cause quite a bit of stress and affect their quality of life in a significant way. Having a horse who softly accepts a bit and flexes comfortably to either side is extremely important no matter what discipline you focus on. A locked jaw also has a terrible effect on the entire body, stiffening it up. It doesn’t matter how much leg you add on, or how closely you as a rider try to micromanage the horse’s body – if the TMJ is locked on one side, your horse will never be truly straight or use his body correctly.

Due to its location, its innervation, and its proximity to the brainstem, dysfunction in the TMJ can also cause balance and body awareness issues, since this area has functions similar to the human ear. For all these reasons, the TMJ is a very important body part to be aware of!

Keeping your horse’s TMJ working properly entails knowing the signs of a potential problem, having the cause correctly diagnosed and treated – and including massage as a way to help restore correct function in any affected areas.