The correlation of teeth and posture has been studied and documented in the scientific literature.
Here are remarks found in the introduction of the study linked above.
These studies suggest that tension in the stomatognathic (teeth, jaw, and related soft tissue) system can contribute to impaired neural control of posture…. If the proprioceptive information of the stomatognathic system is inaccurate, then head control and body position may be affected.
- muscle and joint pain is often due to faulty postural alignment.
- the stomatognathic (teeth, jaw) system plays a large role in postural alignment.
- thus, it can be concluded that the stomatognathic system can play a role in joint and muscle pain due to its role in posture.
Luckily, the Postural Restoration Institute has done much of the legwork in putting the pieces together, so to speak. For anyone who attends their Cervical Revolution seminar, the connection between our teeth and painful body postures is clearly demonstrated.
Occlusion and Malocclusion.
You can either have good occlusion, which means the teeth are contacting normally, or you can have malocclusion, which means the teeth are contacting abnormally.
These terms are somewhat subjective, however. It’s important to remember that humans are not symmetrical. Perfect symmetry is not what we are looking for.
We are simply looking for teeth that aren’t causing a problem for the individual.
Alternation is Life
A client of mine, Anna, had plantar fasciitis, a painful inflammation of the connective tissue on the underside of the foot. As so often is the case, she only had it on one side, in this case her left foot.
In Postural Restoration’s view, one-sided pain is indicative of a body that is not alternating between the left and right side.
Underlying PRI exercises is the idea that the human body has two sides, a left and a right, and they must work harmoniously together.
The most obvious application of this principle is walking.
As we walk forward, our weight must shift from side to side, depending on which foot is weight bearing. This side-to-side alternation of bodyweight incorporates all three planes of motion: sagittal (front to back), frontal (side to side), and transverse (rotational).
Here is what side-to-side alternation looks like and how we get into trouble.
The video shows how bone positions alternate depending on which side of my body my weight is on. When my weight is on my left foot, my bones reflect that “left stance” position.
When I shift my weight to the right, my bones reflect that “right stance” position.
On the last weight shift, however, my bone position never changes from “right stance” to “left stance” position. I’m stuck. Alternation has stopped. This is the root of the problem. Our bones reflect only one position, regardless of whether your weight is shifted to the left or right. We need two positions.
- Alternation between the right and left sides of our body requires movement in three planes of motion. Thus, if we lose our ability to move fully in three planes of motion in any area of the body due to postural or movement restriction, we can’t alternate our weight fully from side-to-side.
- If we can’t alternate, we can’t propel ourselves forward (movement) and breathe efficiently. We will develop compensational patterns of movement and breathing in an attempt to overcome restriction.
- Pain is the likely outcome as our compensation patterns ultimately break down.
- The goal is to remove whatever is restricting us from alternating, and then learn how to alternate again.
Lack of alternation means that the movement of our pelvis, ribcage, and neck is potentially compromised. This, in turn, could potentially compromise the movement of our feet, legs, spine, arms, and head.
The effects of lack of alternation and movement are not uniform among everybody. Here are some variables.
- How much compensation our system can take, or allow, before it starts to hurt. The amount of compensation allowed before pain sets in will vary between people. Some people are master compensators while others are not.
- How far will your body will go in order to find range of motion when it can no longer find it through normal side-to-side tri-planar alternation? My body went to great lengths to get range of motion. It kept me moving, but it was detrimental in the long run.
- The demands upon your body: the sports you play, the activities you pursue. What you do on a regular basis will undoubtedly play a role on your ability to shift and move.
- The “weak link” in this system of alternating movement, the likely location of our initial restriction, occurs at the area of left pelvis and left rib cage, an area linked by the internal oblique and transverse abdominals. The area identified by PRI as the Left ZOA.
In order to move and breathe without compensation (or minimal compensation), the right and left side of our body have to complement each other.
Due to how our body is structured and organized neurologically, the right side will almost always be the dominant side.
This right sided dominance is not a bad thing. It’s just how we are.
The problem occurs when the right side of our body never wants to let go of its dominance (like in the video above, my weight shifts to the left but my body still reflects “right stance”)
The intensity of this right sided dominance can be the difference between how quickly and easily someone resolves pain related to the situation that Postural Restoration seeks to address: restriction caused by overactive chains of muscle that hold us (and our bones) in one position (to the right) and don’t let us use our left side efficiently.
Getting to the left becomes a challenge.
A Neck Can Tell You A Lot.
But the pain didn’t resolve.
In my experience, if someone’s pain is postural and movement related, most people will feel significant relief through pelvic and ribcage repositioning.
Anna didn’t feel any difference. Upon hearing this, my suspicions fell upon her neck.
For various reasons, Ana and I never got to do more than one session, but we remained in contact.
Eventually I saw Anna again and I asked to see her teeth. I can’t remember exactly what I saw, but if memory serves me correctly, her teeth weren’t perfectly straight. She may have had a cross-bite like I used to.
I then tested Anna’s neck, and my suspicions were confirmed: her neck was limited in range of motion.
I gave her a tongue depressor to put between her teeth so that they couldn’t touch and had her walk around for a minute. Then I re-tested her. Anna’s tests changed: her neck was no longer limited in its range of motion and she noticed a difference in how her left foot was contacting the ground.
The Teeth As Sensory Organs
The picture below is me. On the right side you will see the remains of a crossbite that had to be resolved before my body could relax. You’ll notice the uneven nature of my upper and lower canines. That crossbite was enough to cause, or at least contribute, to the physical misery I endured through most of my adult life.
Here is a little understood truth about teeth: our teeth are sensory organs that provide the brain with lots of sensory information (input).
We then make use of that input to decide on how to use our muscles.
Some of that sensory information is positional, it tells us where we are in space and how well we are moving side-to-side. How well we are alternating.
What happens if that input suddenly changes?
For example, let’s say that you are 25 years old. All your life your teeth are supplying your brain with relatively consistent information.
But then you lose a tooth. Or perhaps your jaw shifts to the left so that now your teeth don’t occlude as they did before.
Your brain will recognize that the information being received now is at odds with what it was receiving previously.
From your brain’s perspective, this is potentially a big deal!
When the new stomatognathic information is at odds with what you brain is expecting based on 25 years of previous experience; when that information is confusing, not ordinary, or not what the brain prefers; the alarm bells go off and the brain may tighten jaw and neck muscles as a protective response.
On page 81 of the Cervical Revolution manual, it reads:
“There probably is no greater influence on stomatognathic function and on tempo-mandibular-cervical-cranial skeletal position than occlusion or malocclusion”.
In plain English– how your teeth touch, or occlude, can have a huge impact on the position (posture) of your jaw, head, and neck. And since your head and neck are intricately linked to your torso through chains of muscle, any aberrant position of the jaw, head, or neck can potentially influence the position of your torso, or vice versa.
The Jaw, Neck, and Sternocleidomastoid.
Looking at your head, you’ll notice you have a jaw. We think of it as part of our head.
But if you look at a skeleton, you’ll notice that the jaw (mandible) seems to hang off the sides of our skull at the bottom of our temporal bones. If you have heard of TMJ dysfunction, that’s where the action is.
The tempo-mandibular joint.
Mechanically, the jaw is more influenced by the movements of the neck than anything else. One of those mechanical influences is a big, strong, and yet underappreciated muscle that connects your torso and head.
The sternocleidomastoid, or SCM.
The SCM inserts on your sternum (front of your chest) and the base of the temporal bone (on the mastoid process). Due to its insertion at the mastoid process of the temporal bone, it can have a big influence on the tempo-mandibular joint. While it doesn’t insert on any of the neck vertebrae, it flexes the base of the neck (moving the neck forward as in a forward head posture) and side-bends the head to the same side and rotates the head to the opposite side
We also know that the SCM will influence your torso. When diaphragmatic breathing is compromised due to loss of a left ZOA, the SCM will attempt to help out by “lifting” the rib cage on the right side. This is not a desirable state of affairs. If the SCM is habitually being used as an accessory breathing muscle, it will become over-active and probably tight.
This tight SCM can be pull the ribcage up, or when the ribcage is stable, it can pull on the base of the temporal bone.
Thus the SCM has a big influence on neck, cranial, and TMJ movements, as well as dysfunctional breathing patterns.
Turning “off” an overactive SCM can make a big difference in someone’s life.
For a long time the majority of the medical community believed that the cranium (your head) didn’t move.
It turns out that the cranium does indeed have movement; albeit very limited movement.
But just because movement is small doesn’t mean it isn’t important.
Jaw movements are measured in millimeters. So are cranial movements. Every millimeter counts.
The temporal bone doesn’t just lay inert while the jaw (mandible) moves up and down on it. It is an active participant. Temporal bones flex/extend and externally/internally rotate. In other words, it too, shifts side-to-side. It alternates.
And since the temporal bones move and are half the TMJ, impaired temporal bone movement can impact the movement and function of the tempo-mandibular joint just like impaired movement of a left pelvis will effect overall pelvic, SI joint, and spine movement.
We have a situation where proper temporal bone movement is required for proper TMJ function. And proper temporal movement can be restricted by a neck that isn’t moving correctly due to a tight SCM on the right side.
The SCM and TMJ Harmony
We want our TMJs to be harmonious.
If muscular movement at the head and neck are rhythmic and complimentary, the relationship between the left and right sides is harmonious and we are good to go.
If this relationship is upset for any reason, TMJ dynamics can deteriorate.
Here is a potential scenario.
As demonstrated in the video, an overactive SCM exerts a pull on the base of the temporal bone. This SCM action pulls the temporal bone back (posteriorly) and down (inferiorly).
This back and down movement of the temporal bone in turn pushes the same-side tempo-mandibular joint forward.
You can’t pull a temporal bone back and down without the TMJ moving slightly forward.
If this movement is happening on both sides of the body as we shift side-to-side, in other words we are alternating appropriately, we are all good. We have a nice rhythm going on. Our left and right sides are complimenting each other.
If for any reason our temporal bones stop alternating (due to a tight right SCM, for example) this harmonious side-to-side shifting will be interrupted, and we may find our tempo-mandibular joints positioned and moving incorrectly.
This new TMJ position can alter the mechanical function of our strong chewing muscles such as the massater and temporalis. Now we have completely altered joint positions and muscular forces and have a potential basis for pain.
The Chicken and the Egg
Why else does the SCM get overactive? How does this type of situation arise beside the scenario presented in the video?
Humans depend on sensory information for life.
Altered sensory input, from any system (visual, auditory, proprioceptive), can alter the way our muscles function. If muscle function is altered, bone position is altered. That’s where restriction comes from.
Put the wrong shoes on someone, their SCM may tighten and I bet their neck won’t sidebend to the right as fully as it does to the left.
Put someone in the wrong glasses, their SCM may tighten. I bet they won’t be able to rotate their neck to the left as easily as they do to the right.
These are predictable patterns.
- You got punched in the side of the head and a bone shifted.
- You lost a molar and it was never replaced.
- You suffered severe trauma.
- You had chronic depression
- Your wisdom teeth caused your teeth to shift.
- Your cranium didn’t develop fully.
- You broke an ankle and it never healed properly.
As humans we constantly want to know the “why” behind everything. We want to know that “A” led to “B”. Unfortunately we can never fully know everything. In the case of malocclusion, it can have many origins, an origin which we may never know because we were never aware that anything was amiss.
Although we may not know why the malocclusion occurred, we can see that it is there, and we can observe how someone’s body responds (or doesn’t respond) to taking their occlusion away (the tongue depressor trick).
If someone’s occlusion is causing disharmony and disruption to their body’s ability to move and shift from side-to-side, hopefully it can be addressed.
In Anna’s case, taking away her bite, even just temporarily, allowed her jaw and neck muscles to relax. The release of tension in her muscles gave Anna a window of opportunity to free her body up for proper side-to-side shifting.
She felt a difference in her foot right away. The pain didn’t go away completely, but she realized her foot was making contact with the ground differently and the pain wasn’t as intense.
She was shifting.
Her plantar fasciitis went away.
Plantar Fasciitis is not necessarily a “foot” issue.
Anna had plantar fasciitis in her left foot because her left foot wasn’t contacting the ground properly and likely wasn’t moving through a full range of motion.
But the problem wasn’t the foot. The foot was the victim of something that was occurring all the way up at her neck and teeth. Her teeth, via tight jaw and neck muscles, were preventing proper side-to-side shifting in the rest of her body. Without that alternating movement and displacement of weight, her foot hurt.
Remember, every millimeter counts. Just a slight restriction can cause problems for many people (while for others the same exact restriction could result in no pain at all).
It’s been about five months and Ana is still doing ok. I don’t know if we found her a permanent solution. Maybe all she really needed was to be taken out of her bite once, so her muscles go “let go”. Maybe she’ll need to get some dental work done in the future. Life changes.
This is an important point. We are all individuals. Our own nervous system will ultimately decide what is acceptable and what isn’t in terms of movements and compensation. We can see patterns, but two different bodies may react very differently from the exact same situation.
Here is what Anna says about her experience:
“For the past 4 years I have experienced some pain in my left foot, what seemed to be a plantar fasciitis. In the beginning it only hurt with a change of activity, such as running. The next day I would have hard time putting weight on it. Every morning getting out of bed I felt piercing “needles” taking a first step.
But in the last half a year thing has gotten worse. It hurt all the time. Would you believe when I say that five minutes out of Neal’s time changed it all?
Apparently the bite that I have, in other words the way my teeth contact, wasn’t straight. The way muscles work in our body is as a group or not at all. They all connect creating a chain. With a bad bite, tense neck muscles can pull everything below to only one side and cause a lot of discomfort in your foot! Fascinating thing.
Just five minutes getting a bite straight and when I realized how it’s supposed to feel when it is straight made a dramatic difference. I don’t experience pain in my foot at all, except those times when I clench my jaw unconsciously”.