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Neck pain? Your jaw may be the culprit

Cranial mobilization for neck pain
If you’re experiencing neck pain, you might be able to chalk it up to insufficient mobility in your jaw. How is that possible?

Did you know there are 22 bones in the human skull? The 22 bones are divided into 2 groups: bones of the cranium and bones of the face and jaw.

The bones in our skull are separated by sutures (seamlike, immovable junctions between two bones) which research has proven have a small amount of mobility. The sutures separating these bones do not possess the mobility that you have when, say, you bend your finger back and forth. But those cranial sutures do have some local bendability and flexibility to assist with absorbing the forces and preventing excessive sliding or shearing of the bones when we are hit in the head or experience whiplash in a car accident.

Inefficient mobility at the sutures of the cranial or facial bones for any reason can potentially have an impact on our jaw mobility, neck mobility, and even shoulder mobility, resulting in discomfort or pain.
A diagram of cranial bones.

An anatomical breakdown of your cranium and how it connects to your muscles

Muscles such as the temporalis, which originates at the temporal and parietal bones of the cranium and attach at the mandible, are one of four muscles that allow us to chew our food. The trapezius muscle originates at the occipital bone and thoracic spine and has attachments to the clavicle and scapula (shoulder blade).

Both the clavicle and the scapula play an integral role in our ability to reach up into the cupboard or lift something heavy. And we all know those muscles in the back of our head at the base of skull we beg someone to rub every time we have a headache. Ah yes, our four suboccipital muscles: rectus capitus posterior major and minor and oblique capitus superior and inferior. Of these four muscles, three of them have an attachment from the occipital bone to the first or second vertebrae in our cervical spine.

Getting “unstuck”: cranial mobilization for pain relief

All of those crazy sounding joints in your skull, while structured with less mobility than other joints, can still become stuck. Cranial mobilization is the act of putting localized, specific pressure on the restricted joints. We know, the term “cranial mobilization” can sound a little scary. Fortunately, it’s not an medieval medical practice and can actually relieve headaches and jaw, neck, and shoulder pain.

What to expect during a cranial mobilization treatment

First, I make sure you are as comfortable as possible. The treatment is done while the patient is lying on his or her back. I then assess each cranial bone for a springy, healthy end feel.

If a restriction is found, I localize the restriction to the specific direction it is stuck then ask the patient to do one some simple tasks, like looking right or left, nodding their head, or rocking their legs. I use the movement that I feel to engage the restriction I put pressure on. I often see improvement in arm motion, neck motion, and/or jaw tracking after treatment.

Cranial treatment is usually performed in 2-3 half-hour sessions to fully clear restrictions. Length of treatment often depends on long symptoms have present. Typically, our findings during cranial mobilization make up a significant piece of the pain puzzle and work with other lifestyle changes and physical therapy treatments to cure symptoms.

There are many other muscles and soft tissue connections that intimately relate the cranium to other distant locations in our body. If you have neck pain, headaches, jaw pain or shoulder pain, cranial mobilization may be an importance part of your physical therapy treatment. Contact PhysioCare for more information or to schedule an appointment today!

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