Janet Horvath  

Too Much, Too Soon?

Janet Horvath
May 4, 2019

Jaw Pain

Among musicians, violinists and violists are four times more likely to have jaw pain. Our term violin “hold” implies a static, rigid grabbing of the instrument. Be wary of the fact that you may use more pressure holding your instrument when you are trying hard or are nervous. Forty-seven percent of chin string players have jaw pain due to the fact that the joint is subject to years of pressure on the chin rest side. Those who begin music at very young ages may even develop altered facial symmetry. Wind and brass players may clench their teeth, and any of us may grind our teeth
The two hinges at either side of your face are responsible for opening and closing your mouth, and when they are not working properly, they can cause tissue damage and pain.

Temporomandibular joint dysfunction (TMJ) is surprisingly common in the general population as well as in musicians, but not all jaw pain is TMJ. Muscular pain is actually more common from compulsive clenching or grinding of teeth. Compulsive chewing can bring on jaw problems, but more often stress is the precipitating factor in those individuals who grind their teeth and who clench jaw muscles tightly.

This “pain in the jaw” can result in headaches, hearing loss and ear pain, blurred vision, backaches, jaw clicking, sore and tight jaws, facial pain and worn teeth.
Diagnosis is vital. A good specialist will be able to see wear and tear in your teeth, and will likely take a full history before attempting diagnosis. Proceed first with gentle remedies. Jaw exercises, massage, acupuncture, biofeedback, stress management, cold packs for discomfort, and technique modification can all work.

To avoid aggravating the condition, eat softer foods and chew smaller pieces. Keep your neck and jaw aligned when you are getting ready to go to sleep. Restrict activities that involve opening your mouth wide or clenching your teeth. When your mouth is relaxed, your teeth shouldn’t be touching.

Keep Lips Together and Teeth Apart

Analyze your technique. Some teachers advise sticking your tongue out between your teeth when you are playing to prevent jaw clenching, or placing a small chunk of carrot between the back molars. If you crunch, you are clenching!

Refit chin rests and shoulder pads to eliminate “grabbing” your instrument. All instrumentalists, make sure you are not clenching or misaligning your jaw while playing. Relax your jaw and mouth as often as possible during rests, and take frequent breaks. Practice doing a “fish face” or an “air mouthwash” to aid in release.

Above all, injury prevention is a matter of paying attention to changes, in addition to carefully examining technique and posture.

Be vigilant concerning any abrupt change in technique. Are you trying a new bow or instrument that is bigger, heavier, or balanced differently from what you’re accustomed to? Are the strings too high off the fingerboard? Is the instrument set up in such a way that it is “resistant”?

Monitor sudden increases in playing time and/or intensity.

Are you attending a summer festival or music camp, or preparing for an audition or competition where you have a sudden increase in the amount and intensity of practice? Do you think you must play every day or you’ll lose your edge? Quite the contrary. You are probably overusing your muscles by never giving them a break. Or you might suffer from the opposite problem. Are you a busy parent who juggles practicing with family duties between orchestra services, showing up to play without adequate preparation or warm-up? In this case, you tax your muscles with difficult repertoire without really being in shape for it.

Make sure you avoid “marathon” practice sessions. Take a ten-minute break per hour of practice, and take time to lower arms, wiggle and stretch frequently. Listen to your body and stop playing if you feel pain.

Above all, protect your hearing. IPods, headphones, the sound of your own instrument, especially in small reverberant spaces, and stage placement can damage your hearing. Use hearing protection.

If you are concerned about your injury risk, try the following Injury Susceptibility Quiz. If your answer to many of the questions is Yes, you may be putting yourself at risk for an injury. Overuse injuries can creep up on you.

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