TMJ Disorder in Horses
Temporo-mandibular joint and muscle disorders, often simply referred to as TMJ, are defined as “a group of conditions that cause pain and dysfunction in the jaw joint and the muscles that control jaw movement.” A more accurate acronym is actually TMD (temporomandibular dysfunction). But for this post, I’ll refer to it as TMJ since most of us are more familiar with that term.
TMJ is a condition I know about all too well. I’ve dealt with jaw pain of some form for most of my life–even having to go to a TMJ specialist after my jaw began locking up when I was in my early twenties.
Horses can suffer from TMJ disorder as well, as I’ve recently come to realize with my mare, Lee Lee. She’s displayed some classic symptoms from a young age, but I just didn’t put two and two together. Probably one of those ‘missing the forest for the trees’ situations. . .
Years ago, I began to worry when Lee Lee started holding her head to one side while eating her feed. The fact that she would also toss her head frequently when being ridden bothered me as well. I took her to several different vets to have her teeth checked, but nothing out of the ordinary was found. So I chalked it up to just being sensitive. I assumed these were quirks I would just have to put up with.
That is until last fall when I started working with her again after several years off.
I immediately noticed that the head-tossing had gotten significantly worse (even in a bitless bridle). Her gaits seemed off as well. It was apparent that something more serious was going on. I made an appointment with Spencer LaFlure , who specializes in balancing the TMJ as well as the teeth.
Spencer mentioned that it may take more than just getting her bite aligned to correct the problem though. The muscles and ligaments had been strained for so long, it would be hard for them to relax. This makes sense of course, since TMJ disorder can involve more than just the joint.
The Horse’s TMJ
The TMJ joint resides just below and in front of the base of the ears on either side of the head. It’s where the lower jaw (mandible) of the horse articulates with the temporal bone. The horse’s temporo-mandibular joint is a bit more complex than ours because of the fact that horses have moveable ears and teeth that erupt throughout their lifetime. It also articulates with the hyoid bone, which is attached to other structures extending down the neck.
Of course there are several different muscles surrounding the TMJ joint and palpation of tightness or a display of sensitivity in these muscles can be a good indicator of pain.
According to this informative article written by Cranio-sacral therapist, Maureen Rogers, “In the event of these muscles tightening and shortening, the body then negatively compensates for the imbalance. The proper function of the TMJ Mechanism therefore plays an important role in the whole function of the horse, including leads, gaits, balance and equilibrium.’
Everything in the horse’s body is connected. An imbalance in one location can lead to imbalances in other areas as well. . .
Symptoms of TMJ Disorder in Horses
There are several different symptoms (many of which Lee Lee has) that can indicate that your horse is suffering from a TMJ disorder. They include:
- uneven wear of the teeth (your vet or equine dentist may notice this);
- head tossing, especially when pressure is applied with a bit or hackamore;
- ear sensitivity;
- difficulty taking or wearing a bit;
- difficulty with certain leads or gaits;
- difficulty flexing at the poll; and/or
- head shy or sensitive in jaw area.
Causes of TMJ Disorder in Horses
I can trace my own TMJ problems back to grade school, when my dentist put me in a special retainer to correct my overbite. Then I believe the problem was worsened when I wore braces for nearly five years. Apparently, aggressive dental work with horses can be a trigger for TMJ dysfunction as well.
In another excellent article, Dr. Heather Mack, a holistic veterinarian and advocate of TMJ Awareness Dentistry said, “I feel equine dentistry has advanced too far toward the comfort of the dentist and less toward the comfort and safety of the horse. The overuse of power dental instruments is the primary reason I see and treat so many TMD horses.”
Personally, I would be very cautious of who you use to float your horse’s teeth. I will not allow power tools to be used on Lee Lee again. (Natural Balance dentists, like Spencer Laflure only use hand tools and make the comfort of the horse a priority.)
Aside from dentistry, other possible causes of TMJ disorder in horses include:
- eating out of raised hay racks;
- use of bits and/or restrictive nosebands;
- improper saddle fit;
- ‘hard’ hands of rider;
- improper gaits caused by faulty hoof care or conformational defects;
- emotional stress;
- injury sustained while ‘pulling back’; and/or
- lack of pasture grazing.
Treating TMJ Disorder in Horses
So what can be done to address TMJ disorders in horses? After you’ve examined and hopefully eliminated factors that may be contributing to the problem such as bits, dental issues, hoof trimming, feeding practices, etc., body work and/or holistic treatments may be your best bet (aside from joint injections, which makes me cringe to think about. . .)
There are many different types of body work that can be used to relax the muscles, ligaments, and tendons in the jaw and TMJ area. Massage, acupressure, acupuncture, myofascial release, and cranio-sacral work are a few.
For the last several weeks, I’ve been using acupressure, red light therapy, and massage with Lee Lee. Here are a few of the acupressure points that can benefit TMJ disorder in horses. Lee Lee’s jaw is so sensitive that sometimes, I can only use my red light (holding it about an inch away from her face). I am noticing some small improvements though.
Stomach 1: (bilateral) located just beneath the center of the eye. Aids in relieving jaw pressure.
Bladder 10: (bilateral) located just behind the atlas and in front of the first cervical vertebrae on the upper neck. Relieves neck pain.
Gallbladder 21: (bilateral) located just above the last cervical vertebrae and in front of the scapula. Softens tense muscles.
Lung 7: (bilateral) located just in front of (toward the horse’s head) the large vein that runs down the inner leg, even with the bottom of the horse’s chestnut. Master point for the head and neck.
Large Intestine 4: (bilateral) located just below the inner carpal bones, at the head of the inner splint bone. Master point for the face and mouth.
Also, if the actual TMJ joint is known to be involved, joint supplements may be beneficial. Otherwise natural anti-inflammatory supplements such as Devil’s Claw can likely help (temporarily). See these posts for more information on those:
The final point I’d like to make is this: when your horse is behaving in an unnatural manner, don’t always assume he’s just being difficult. A head shy horse or one who is fussy with the bit likely has valid reason to be acting the way he does. This is something that took me a while to realize, but now, I always search for a physical or psychological cause for these behaviors in my horses.
Sources and Further Reading