THE TEMPOROMANDIBULAR JOINT – PART 2 BY KATJA PORENTA, EEBW
Continued from Part 1
SYMPTOMS OF TMJ ISSUES
The symptoms of TMJ issues are similar to those of dental issues. Sensitivity around the head and ears, unusual chewing patterns, going against the rider’s hand, bending issues, headshaking, all of this is very typical of TMJ dysfunction. Another red flag is when our horse needs his teeth done unusually frequently. Because TMJ dysfunction impedes proper chewing, the teeth don’t wear evenly and sharp points can develop at a much faster rate. TMJ dysfunction also needs to be considered when our horse’s chewing muscles and the poll muscles show uneven development and sensitivity. A tight poll will lead to a tight neck, which will in turn lead to a tight back. Tension always travels along the body and if left unchecked for long enough, TMJ pain will eventually show itself in the horse’s entire body. This will show up as reduced performance and possible behavioral issues. But it doesn’t end here. Relatively close to the TMJ the balance apparatus is located. This important structure provides the horse with the information about where his body is in space, what his posture is like, what his legs are doing. Chronic TMJ issues can negatively impact this function. A reduced sense of balance and loss of coordination leads to uneven gaits and asymmetry in movement.
RESOLVING AND PREVENTING TMJ ISSUES
TMJ dysfunction is closely related to dental problems, so the first step should be to make sure the horse’s teeth are balanced. Sometimes this is enough to resolve the issues, but often additional steps will be needed. Releasing the restrictions in the muscles and fascia with high quality bodywork is essential to restore the full function of the TMJ. If we don’t deal with the restriction in the soft tissues, the tight muscles and fascia will continue to pull the joint out of balance and impede its full range of motion. This will in turn cause uneven wearing of the teeth and recurring dental issues. Because one part of the body will always affect the rest, it is important to check for any restrictions along in the neck and along the spine and pelvis. If the issues were caused by improperly fitting tack or bad riding, a dental check-up and bodywork will not be enough to tackle the issue in the long run. We need to determine what was the reason for the dysfunction in the first place and tackle the true cause.
Make sure the bridle you are using fits properly, make sure the horse’s feet are balanced, ask yourself if you might be too rough with the reins. When in doubt, consult an expert. Preventing issues is always better than dealing with a full-blown injury, which is why it is important to make sure your horse’s TMJ is functioning properly before the symptoms arise. If possible, we should enable the horse to spend most of his time grazing on roughage, which encourages him to chew more and chew better. Spending long hours of the day chewing with a low head posture is optimal for the correct functioning of the chewing apparatus and it is the best preventative measure we can take (in addition to correct training of course). If grazing is not an option, we can try providing hay ad lib (consult a nutritionist first, to see if your horse will be able to handle this type of diet). Offer the hay outside, not in the stall, to encourage the horse to eat with a lowered head. Plenty of roughage, plenty of movement and reducing stressful situations can do a lot for the TMJ.
RED FLAGS FOR TMJ DYSFUNCTION:
- Unevenly developed and/or sensitive chewing and poll muscles
- Sensitivity to touch around the TMJ
- Misalignment in the upper and lower jaw
- Popping sounds during chewing
- Dropping food while chewing
- Issues with the bit
- Difficulty bending
If you suspect your horse might have a TMJ issues, consult your veterinarian, dentist and equine bodyworker.