Many TMJ disorders start in the muscles of the head and neck region. Tight, fatigued, and overused neck muscles can cause changes in head position and, consequently, changes in the tone of jaw muscles and the position of the lower jaw (even when at rest). Over time these subtle changes can cause jaw pain and tightness. In addition, there are trigger points in the neck muscles that, when active, can refer pain to the jaw and lead to muscle contracture of the jaw muscles, leading to diminished jaw motion and sometimes changes in how the teeth come together.
By working one’s upper body while pedaling a stationary bicycle, the head and jaw posture is often strained in a way that can lead to extreme muscle fatigue. The head weighs about 18 lbs., and in the midst of an intense cycling class, this 18 lb. ball is hanging forward and bouncing around. As a result of this challenge to the biomechanics and physiology of the neck, muscle pain, and at times even nerve pain can emerge in the face and jaw, a condition commonly referred to as TMJ.
Knowledge of how the neck works is important in understanding why TMJ problems can be caused by intense indoor cycling classes. My patient Nancy is a perfect example. She is 27 years old and recently came to see me complaining of severe jaw pain, limited jaw motion, and jaw clicking. A thorough interview revealed that the only change in her daily routine was the inclusion of three to four Soul Cycle classes per week. The discussion also revealed that she had been experiencing jaw tension during class that often lingered for hours afterward.
What started out as a short-term symptom had evolved into even more troublesome problems. I recommended that she give herself a break from Soul Cycle, engage in a short regimen of physical therapy, and take anti-inflammatory medication for a limited period of time. I’m happy to report that today Nancy’s jaw problems have been resolved.
I recognize that intense indoor cycling fitness programs such as Soul Cycle can have tremendous personal and physical benefits. What should be kept in mind is this: many classes every week over a long period of time may actually put your jaw at risk. And what good is a fit body if you can barely open your mouth?