This mouthful of a system encompasses the body (stoma) and jaw (gnathic). Although the jaw may seem less relevant to the rest of the body than joints like the shoulder or hip, it can play a big role in headaches and neck posture.
Stomatognathic Basics: The Jaw
The jaw joint is mobile, but limited by the joint on the other side. When opening your mouth wide, the joint first opens like a hinge, then slides forward. This is quite a demand, and the movement is supported by the disc of cartilage within the joint. However, the disc can be the root of pain, clicking, and locking.
The jaw can be misaligned in the long term if there are problems with tooth alignment. Guidelines have veered away from unnecessary tooth extraction, especially with wisdom teeth. Where there is overcrowding and the bite changes, the jaw has to adapt. Similarly, overbites and underbites have a demand on the jaw and stomatognathic system. Your dentist or orthodontist is your first port of call for tooth alignment problems, but your osteopath can help with the secondary effects of them.
Relevance to Osteopathy
Acknowledging the stomatognathic system means acknowledging the link between the jaw and the rest of the body. This relationship goes both ways: jaw problems can cause aches and pains elsewhere, but changes in neck posture can lead to jaw pain too.
Neck Posture and The Jaw
The diagram above shows the stomatognathic system in action. When the head shifts forwards, tension is placed on the muscles that run down the front of the neck. When the muscles between the jaw and the neck or chest become tight, they start to pull the jaw open. We have a subconscious reflex that tries to keep the jaw closed, so while the neck tension is there, other muscles have to work against it. This role is often fulfilled by the small muscles that sit directly over the joint, as well as larger ones usually used for chewing. When the small ones become tight, they can directly impact the cartilage disc within the joint. The results can be the clicking, locking, and pain mentioned before.
A forward neck posture is a common side effect of modern life. Desk work can encourage its development, and work stress can add to the jaw-clenching.
Stress and the Stomatognathic System
We’ve spoken before about how stress can affect the shoulders, neck, and cause headaches. Stress can cause similar effects within the stomatognathic system. Tooth grinding, which often happens subconsciously overnight, can tighten the same jaw muscles mentioned above. Again, this can cause problems with the disc. This is another instance where management from both your dentist and osteopath might be the best plan. Although neither of us can resolve your stress, we can work together to protect your teeth and jaw.