Human beings hold tension in their bodies in the form of sustained muscle contractions that get put on what I call “automatic lockdown.” These contractions start off as muscle tightening because of incurred stress or unreleased emotional expression. We continually experience things real or perceived that cause our muscles to contract which produce a poor type of motor efficiency manifesting as a partially contracted muscle. This is the situation that occurs from the unresolved flight or fight response. The motor unit (the junction of a nerve and a muscle bundle) is in a partial state of excitability like a dimmer switch situated half way for a light. It is not fully on or off, just buzzing in between. I once had an electrician tell me that this costs the most energy due to the resistance required for it to maintain this state. When we get angry many of us clench our teeth, while others draw their shoulders up to their ears creating tension in these muscles that stay partially contracted. We exhaust our vital energy by generating resistance to relaxation if we do not take the time to restore our muscles to their optimal resting length. Without regular restorative stretches and Myofascial Release, the outcome will be tight muscles, fascial restrictions, overall decreased joint mobility, and diminished athletic performance.
Three of the most common muscles in the body where we hold tension are known as the Tension Triad: Pterygoid, Psoas, and Piriformis. The Pterygoid (pronounced terry-goid) is a muscle that is located near where the jaw hinges on either side of the face and is a muscle of mastication (chewing muscle used to grind food). There is a medial and a lateral pterygoid on each side of the face. The medial pterygoid is active when clenching the jaw. Moving the jaw sideways and forward is produced by both the medial and lateral pterygoids on the opposite side to the movement. They are both innervated by their own individual branches of the Trigeminal Nerve (CN5). If you place your hands on the side of your face just in front of your earlobes/ear canal, and clench your teeth or move your jaw side to side, you will feel their action.
Do you grind your teeth at night?
Do you get headaches near your temples?
Do you have audible clicking or popping in your jaw?
Tight Pterygoid muscles may be contributing to the symptoms your body is producing. You can try a simple Wellness Self Check to check to see if your pterygoids might need some wellness work. Working with and restoring this muscle to its natural resting position can help prevent some of the contributions it may have on the above manifestations of a body out of balance. Begin by washing your hands in soap and warm water and drying them. 1. Notice if your jaw is clenched right now. If you don’t know, then gently clench your teeth together and hold for a few seconds. 2. Now relax, and let your lower teeth fall away from your upper teeth. Drop your jaw as far as you can but keep your lips together. 3. Move your jaw side to side. 4. What do you feel? Tension? Tightness? Relax again. 5. Notice where your tongue rests in your mouth. Be aware of what is normal for you.
Wellness Self Check: Start by opening your mouth, run your index finger along outside of the top row of teeth until you get to the last back upper tooth. Slightly open your mouth (separate your teeth) to adjust your lips around your finger then relax the jaw by closing the mouth almost all the way. Continue past the last upper tooth into the fleshy dip beyond the teeth. For some of you it may feel like a brick wall. If it feels tender or hard under your finger or is painful, your check in with yourself, has revealed a possible contributor to the symptoms above. Most everyone is tight and/or tender here. You can leave your finger in, or pull it back just a tad until the placement is comfortable or tolerable. If you want to help it release, then remain in the mouth and let the tissue under your finger soften around your finger for 5 minutes. Do not feel the need to go in deeper just let the finger and inner mouth become one continuous connection. I recommend side lying on a 4 inch MFR vinyl ball (pictured above) for this stretch because, in sitting, the weight of the head can become heavy and the sensation can be exquisitely painful. In the photo above, the bottom or top hand can be used on the side of the jaw closest to the ceiling. It all depends on personal body shapes and ability to reach comfortably to the rear of the top teeth without straining the rest of the body. Allow your breathing to slow down and enjoy the softening. Play a 5 minute song on your iPod, or set a timer while you wait to ensure you are holding long enough. If you notice pain or tension anywhere else in the body, this is the fascial voice and this is likely another area in your body that needs your attention.
***If you are uncomfortable stretching yourself, have significant pain, do not understand the instructions for the wellness check, or have a case of TMJ Dysfunction that has been diagnosed by a physician, dentist or chiropractor, then an assessment or a screening by a Myofascial Release (MFR) Therapist in your area may be able to help. This information is provided for educational purposes only to increase body awareness and is not meant to diagnose or treat any condition.
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Checking in with our bodies is part of maintaining our overall Wellness. It is how we become aware of what is happening on our inner landscape before our bodies scream at us in pain or break down on us due to ignoring muscle tension, unexpressed emotion, or any other postural imbalance that is allowed to continue over time without release. Please take time to treat yourself well, stretch, go for a walk, meditate, dance, listen to music you enjoy, journal, paint, draw or create in a way that is unique to you. Wellness involves all aspects of our being: physical, emotional, mental and spiritual. To be continued…Tension Triad Part II: The Psoas.