Beginner Sore Jaw - Can I keep practising with Temporomandibular Joint Disorder (TMJ)?


New Member
Cornwall, UK
Hi All

Not really sure anyone can give me a definitive answer here but I suppose I need somewhere to vent!

Not long before taking up the saxophone, I woke up one morning and my jaw had locked. It eased off but hasn't been the same since. I went to see a dentist who was not helpful and then a chiropractor who set me some exercises to align and loosen my jaw - the muscle is tight on one side. It has improved with these exercises but is not back to what it should be.

I'm almost certain that I've got temporormandibular joint disorder (TMJ for short) as described by Wikipedia here:

I've got the sore, tender jaw (just a dull ache, nothing terrible thankfully), slight ear ache on occasion, clicking when I eat, jaw won't open as wide as it should, and I suspect that the 'whooshing' sound I get in one ear upon waking is related to TMJ.

I know I should have waited for my jaw to settle prior to taking up the sax but I was so excited - plus the chiropractor thought it would be OK.

However, I notice that my jaw aches more after I've been practising and I'm concerned that my sax playing could make it worse. I don't know what to do - I can't imagine not being able to play the saxophone now! I hope that continuing to practise but easing off if I feel any pain will mean that I can keep going - maybe I'm kidding myself?


To be honest, I've not seen my doctor as I initially thought it would be something for a dentist to treat and then someone suggested a chiropractor. Having read up on TMJ, it seems that there is still an awful lot not known about it and it sounds like it's difficult to cure. To say I'm feeling gutted is an understatement - I finally feel as if I've found something I love doing but am now wondering if I'll have to stop before I've really got going. Perhaps I should give it a rest for a while and see if it settles down, and risk losing what I've built on practise-wise for the last two months. I don't know.
perhaps you should see your doc before making any decisions.

A friend of mine had something like this, and it turned out to be something completely different (and more serious).
Yep, I'd better be on the safe side I suppose (now slightly freaked lol :shocked:). Thanks for your reply.
I know, sort of, how your feeling in terms of losing what youve learned. I had to give up after 6 weeks following a car crash that caused a bad neck injury. Didnt get the go ahead to start again for 6-7 months. It was tough not playing but necessary so as to not do further damage and prolong the layoff. Here's hoping you can get it sorted to allow you to play.
I'm not qualified to offer medical advice beyond - I think you should seek medical advice.... it might be nothing, but it might not.

I've been playing cello for just over a year. Last summer, I went on a summer school and was playing for 6 hours a day. I've had problems with my left arm (fingering hand - I'm also left-handed). I assumed it was a tendinitis problem (i.e. tennis elbow or similar). Six months later, I have had a bit of physio (local sports physio), it is much less painful, but has not gone away completely and it might take another 6 months. I have recently seen a specialist physio who has confirmed that it is inflamed tendon / tennis elbow.
I can play, but I have to be sensible and I've got some techniques for easing it.

One question I do have is whether you have a sax teacher or not? It might be an issue with technique or embouchure.
I second the recommendation to seek medical advice. At age 65 I have learned (the hard way) to listen to what my body is telling me. If practicing the saxophone causes an increase in the pain, it means that playing involves something that aggravates the condition. Perhaps you are tightening the jaw when you form your embouchure. Playing the saxophone (except for the muscles around the mouth) should feel as relaxed as blowing a puff of air.

Until you get it worked out, there is a lot to be said for practicing the saxophone singing and fingering the notes. You can develop technique, practice counting rhythms, memorize scales, and even work on articulation without actually blowing through the mouthpiece to make a sound. I know it sounds silly, but it actually works. Don't get discouraged. A good friend of mine in college was diagnosed with TMJ and he is now a professional tuba player and a professor at a major university.
Until you get it worked out, there is a lot to be said for practicing the saxophone singing and fingering the notes. You can develop technique, practice counting rhythms, memorize scales, and even work on articulation without actually blowing through the mouthpiece to make a sound. I know it sounds silly, but it actually works. Don't get discouraged.

More or less what I was going to say, still plenty of progress you can make, don't be down hearted.

this might sound a bit harsh but!!!!!

If my doctor tried to give me sax lessons im pretty sure I wouldnt take his advice
For goodness sake ..........Go see a doctor........ not just any doctor
Alot of them havent got a clue about things out of the ordinary.
They just precribe antibiotics and say see you later.
Go and see a doctor who specialises in the jaw or mouth or bones not a Chiro.
Chiropractors are spinal physicians !!!!!!!
Good luck
Hi All

Thanks for all of your suggestions. I will make an appt to see my GP in case they are able to refer me to someone more specialist. To be honest, I have my doubts that there will be someone in Cornwall, unless I pay through the roof, which I can't afford. Have a feeling I'll need to stop practising for a while to see if things settle down. I'm going to wait until my teacher returns from his travels to check my embouchure. The sax didn't cause the problem and my jaw actually feels looser while I'm playing but my jaw ache is more noticeble afterwards. Like the idea of fingering the notes etc if I need to rest up.

Maybe all's not lost but I think I need to be sensible.
As a retired dentist with experience of seeing a lot of people with TMJ syndrome there are no easy answers. Its aetiology is multifactorial and can sometimes be idiopathic, this is why specialist clinics exist in order to treat patients who suffer. The symptoms can vary from an annoying click with little or no discomfort to severe pain inability to open and eat properly.
Saxophone playing requires a jaw position which places the lower jaw in a forward position where, if the individuals anatomy is unfavourable, it can produce severe muscle trismus ( cramps/pain )and joint pain or even dislocation. In a lot of cases I have dealt with the primary cause has been stress which results in tooth grinding or bruxism which may occur during the day or night. A dentist should be able to tell you if there are any obvious wear facets on the teeth if this is happening. Very often a simple solution is a bite guard which prevents contact of the teeth ( like a boxers gum shield but not so thick ) this may need to be worn at night or the whole time depending on professional advice, when in practice I had some patients where this became a permanent requirement.
My advice would be to seek professional opinion.
Al, thanks for that. Just to add, the OP doesn't have a proper diagnosis yet.
...and by that I reckon you mean ignore the chiropractor since they have no medical training

If it were me my first port call would be a dental practioner. Reason, all dentists unless very young or inexperienced will certainly have encountered more patients with TMJ problems. Nuff said.
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I was diagnosed the first time with TMJ (it was called differently then) with similar symptoms, in 1985.
They told me I could not play saxophone any more. A maxillofacial doctor detected my main problem in bruxism (night teeth grinding) but an increased awareness of my embochure helped a lot. In my case, finding the correct angle of the mouthpiece was important.
I hope you can!! I get bouts of TMJ myself. Somewhat different symptoms to yours though by the sounds of it. My jaw just clicks and knocks on one side sometimes. Most disconcerting when it happens. Seems to particularly come on when I lose weight strangely enough. I started playing sax just over 3 months ago but my weight is back way up so I've also just gone on a new year mega diet and exercise regime so now you've made me think about what may be around the corner!

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