Are dental guards and occlusal splints really effective to treat Bruxism (teeth grinding)?

As long as the guards / splints are well designed and worn consistently, they can be effective for those people who grind so badly that they damage their teeth. Ill-fitting splints, however, can create more problems than they solve (besides which, they are rarely worn because they are uncomfortable).

In my practice, the most common problems I’ve seen with splints is that they are too big. This throws off the placement of the temporomandibular joint (TMJ) which then makes the muscles of the jaw (most notably the masseter and pterygoid muscles) painful and tight. Very often, the tension in these muscles feeds into the grinding through muscle tension and heightened activation.

In the below diagrams, the red areas indicate the primary patterns of pain associated with bruxism. In the first diagram, the muscle drawn at the back of the jaw is the masseter, which is the main chewing muscle. You can easily feel this muscle when clenching your jaw:

Masseter muscle

Bruxism also affects the medial and lateral pterygoid muscles:

The medial and lateral pterygoid muscles

which are very difficult to reach, but important to treat for TMJ pain and bruxism.

There is a good product out now for self-treatment of the muscles of the jaw, called The MyoFree Solution:

The MyoFree Solution

Very often, if you deactivate trigger points in the jaw and restore normal tone and resting length, the bruxism reduces or is eliminated entirely.

In the meantime, though, let your dentist know that the splint is uncomfortable, and ask them to reexamine the fitting. Good luck!

Why do we get knots in our back muscles, but not in other areas (e.g. arms or legs)?

Why do we get knots in our back muscles, but not in other areas (e.g. arms or legs)?

“Muscle knots,” otherwise known as trigger points, can occur in any muscle of the body when that muscle is used improperly or damaged. With repeated misuse or damage, the affected sarcomeres (contracting fibers) can “lock” into immobility and inflammation of varying levels. Online research of any skeletal muscle of the body reveals images of trigger point pain patterns for that muscle. (Various muscles associated with locations of pain throughout the body are shown here too: National Association of Myofascial Trigger Point Therapists | Symptom Checker)

Current wisdom on this subject is as follows: “The presence of CGRP (calcitonin gene-related peptide) drives the system to become chronic, potentiating the motor endplate response and potentiating, with SubstanceP, activation of muscle nociceptors. The combination of acidic myofascial pH and proinflammatory mediators at the active trigger point contributes to segmental spread of nociceptive input into the dorsal horn of the spinal cord and leads to the activation of multiple receptive fields. Neuroplastic changes in dorsal horn neurons occur in response to constant nociceptive barrage, causing further activation of neighboring and regional dorsal horn neurons that now have lowered thresholds. This results in the observed phenomena of hypersensitivity, allodynia, and referred pain that is characteristic of the active myofascial trigger point.” 1

To put it in simpler clinical terms, an active trigger point that is referring pain will activate (as a result of tissue metabolism and biochemistry altering the nociceptive threshold) associated soft tissue and neural regions through neuroplasticity.

1. An expansion of Simons’ integrated hypothesis of trigger point formation (pg. 474, 1st P.)

When you’re injured and something is swollen, why is it good to ice it?

When you’re injured and something is swollen, why is it good to ice it?

Your body’s soft tissue includes muscle, fascia (connective tissue), nerves, blood vessels, and lymph vessels, predominantly. When this soft tissue is injured (via bruise, tear, sprain, etc.), it is like a bunch of broken fluid pipes that require the “pressure” to be turned off until the pipe can heal enough to resume stable and reliable function. To reduce this pressure, short, local applications of cold are called for.

The effects this has on the injured joints, bursae, or fascia include:

  • vasoconstriction of blood and lymph vessels, which squeezes out excess plasma and lymph from the site of damage and helps control hemorrhage and hyper-edema (excessive swelling), and
  • brief analgesia, or relief from pain, which may help moderate the inflammatory response from excessive to helpful.

What we’re going for here is modulation of the inflammatory response from over-reactive to measured. This allows the tissue to begin healing in the most helpful bio-environment possible. When applied properly, cold will accelerate the healing rate via beneficial tissue metabolic activity and enhanced return to comfortable function.

1. Hydrotherapy; Theory and Technique, 3d Edition; Patrick Barron; Pine Island Publishers, 2003; pg 72

What should I do to relieve a nerve pain above my fingers?

Finger pain

My answer here is based on the following question: (paraphrased) “I work on a computer keyboard quite a lot. When doing so for a long time, I get pain in the circled area (above). If I take a rest of around 2 days, the pain goes away. However, I have to work at the keyboard, and taking breaks of that length is not an option. Are there any exercises, medicines or foods that can help me with this?”

First of all, you MUST get a physical exam from a physician to receive the best advice. Another thing to address is whether or not you might be holding your hand in slight extension/elevation above your keyboard when you type, like this:

Conventional keyboard trays can increase injury risks

This position puts undue strain on the Extensor Carpi Radialis Brevis muscle (which extends the hand at the wrist), and can produce a pain pattern as follows:

The extensor carpi radialis brevis muscle

You might examine your keyboard and hand positions during typing and bring them both back to neutral (straight).

Another thing you might try involves the following steps:

  1. Heat the forearm (particularly the muscles, around where the “x” is above),

  2. Compress the muscle knot (trigger point) around the x until it feels dissolved,

  3. Then massage and lightly stretch the muscle, like this:

Massaging the arm

(image: Page on Easyvigor)

Be sure not to stretch so hard that it produces pain; this could further irritate the muscle and tendon.

How does one transition from a narcotic-based pain-management system to one that is non-narcotic-based? How do the two compare?

How does one transition from a narcotic-based pain-management system to one that is non-narcotic-based? How do the two compare?

The most important thrust of the question is: “I’d really like to come off the narcotics but I have no idea what else would successfully cover my pain.” THIS is what is facing most people in the midst of chronic pain: they don’t want to become addicted to pain medications, but they can’t function without them.  What effective alternatives are there?

This is a really great question, and it is one of the questions dominating focus, research, debate and policy in pain management today. Narcotics work very, very well: they “turn off” the pain signal, so that you don’t perceive it through your sensory nervous system. This is a delight for the pain patient who is constantly suffering. “A relief from that pain? Heck yeah, sign me up!”

The problem that pain management clinicians and researchers are struggling with is the “activation threshold” of pain. That is, when you dampen the pain signal over time, your system adjusts to that factor, and then the pain threshold lowers, UNLESS you have the medication intervening. Which means you need higher doses of your medication to achieve the same level of relief from pain.

Initially, this means that you can essentially do more with less pain. Yay, right? Not necessarily. What if, even while you feel less pain, you do more damage to the mechanical tissues of your body because you can’t feel the painful feedback your body sends to tell you you’re hurting it? If this happens, it usually results in further injury. For example, let’s say you have a torn muscle in your leg. You numb it with narcotics so that you can run on it. While you don’t feel the pain caused by running on the leg with the torn muscle, this exercise, in this state, almost guarantees extra damage to the torn muscle.

This brings up the crucial factor with which all researchers and clinicians struggle: What is actually causing the pain, both anatomically and physiologically? How did it start? What sustains it? How does one address both anatomy and physiology without making the patient increasingly dependent on medication for relief, or hopefully, recovery?

For this, you need a case director (usually MD/DO) who is well educated and experienced with a BROAD variety of treatment options. These options need to include “alternatives” such as chiropractic, acupuncture, biofeedback and advanced manual therapy. All of these techniques (tools in the therapeutic toolbox, if you will) do have limited studies done regarding their efficacy. The best “director” for your case will be an advanced MD/DO who has been apprised of those studies, and who also has had significant clinical experience with these “tools” and their benefits.

They will know how to best reduce your current medication (possibly in favor of one with lesser side-effects) and also how best to integrate effective “alternative” techniques into your treatment plan and its goals. These goals, often including comfortable and effective resumption of activities of daily living (ADLs) are superimposed with medication dosages in order to determine their therapeutic efficacy.

A good place to start finding a knowledgeable physician to guide your case is with the American Academy of Pain Management. The AAPM is the only institution to currently accredit those in multidisciplinary pain management, and they are committed to an interdisciplinary approach.

If you are merely exploring competent practitioners in alternative methods, PLEASE study their CVs, license, certifications and experience. I would recommend distrusting anyone who says, “Oh, I can cure you; the technique I use is the only one that works.” NO technique is a panacea – NONE. If they can’t discuss the strengths and limitations (almost more important) of their technique, then they are downright dangerous to you.

You need a good guide. That’s what a great pain management doctor does. Go find yourself one! Best of luck.

What can cause muscles to be sore for weeks to the point that they're painful when used?

What can cause muscles to be sore for weeks to the point that they’re painful when used?

Unfortunately, there are quite a few diagnoses that are relevant to muscle soreness and weakness beyond a week’s span. Be sure to have a physician examine you to at least rule out some of the more basic physiological diseases.

Once those are cleared satisfactorily, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Was there a precipitating event? That is, did it happen all of a sudden? If so, how?

  2. Where in the body did the pain originate? What was the quality of the pain (sharp/burning/dull & aching/sore/tingling/numbness)?

  3. How long did the pain last?

If the pain began with a precipitating event (e.g. “I lifted something;” “I slept funny;” “I twisted in the shower;” “I leapt to catch a ball;” etc.), it usually indicates a sprain or strain to muscle, tendon, or ligament. If you hear a “pop” or “crack” in a joint, it is most likely a connective tissue rupture. If this is the case, you will need a good interview by a sports medicine physician (MD/DO) and probably a scan of some kind (x-ray or CAT scan for bony/cartilage tissues; MRI for muscle/tendon/ligament tissues). This will help to determine what damage, if any, has been done, and if the issue warrants surgery and/or therapeutic intervention. This needs to be your first port-of-call for pain lasting longer than 1-2 weeks.

Once you have determined that there is minimal damage, and therefore, that surgery is unwarranted, you can determine that the cause is one of the following:

  1. Not normal delayed onset muscle soreness (lasting 24-72 hours): See my answer to What causes delayed onset muscle soreness?

  2. A sprain or strain: See Sprains, Strains and Other Soft-Tissue Injuries

  3. If there are multiple areas around the initial location of pain and injury, you may have developed myofascial pain syndrome: “Myofascial pain syndrome typically occurs after a muscle has been contracted repetitively. This can be caused by repetitive motions used in jobs or hobbies or by stress-related muscle tension. While nearly everyone has experienced muscle tension pain, the discomfort associated with myofascial pain syndrome persists or worsens.”

Myofascial pain syndrome (Mayo Clinic)

As a bit of an aside, sub-acute (1-6 months) and chronic (more than 6 months) of myofascial pain are treated thus:

“A successful treatment protocol relies on identifying trigger points, resolving them and, if all trigger points have been deactivated, elongating the structures affected along their natural range of motion and length. In the case of muscles, which is where most treatment occurs, this involves stretching the muscle using combinations of passive, active, active isolated (AIS), muscle energy techniques (MET), and proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) stretching to be effective. Fascia surrounding muscles should also be treated, possibly with myofascial release, to elongate and resolve strain patterns, otherwise muscles will simply be returned to positions where trigger points are likely to re-develop.

The results of manual therapy are related to the skill level of the therapist. If trigger points are pressed too short a time, they may activate or remain active; if pressed too long or hard, they may be irritated or the muscle may be bruised, resulting in pain in the area treated. This bruising may last for a 1–3 days after treatment, and may feel like, but is not similar to, delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), the pain felt days after overexerting muscles. Pain is also common after a massage if the practitioner uses pressure on unnoticed latent or active trigger points, or is not skilled in myofascial trigger point therapy.” (Wiki: Trigger point)

(PS – I’m really proud of the Wiki on this. They nailed it, spot on.)

In a standard clinical interview, you have to go over all the aforementioned patient history, physicians’ reports, scans and anything else you can tell or show the practitioner about what may be the cause of the pain. Your practitioner can then figure out what muscles do the motion that produced the injury & other perpetuating factors, which allows the practitioner to decide what to treat first. This is the general clinical starting point for therapeutic focus.

What causes delayed onset muscle soreness?

This is a hot topic in physiotherapy, so I’m adding some research and detail to this. If you’re looking for a quick answer, see the first three points, because I agree with them. For those who want more data, I provide further detail to the symptom/diagnosis below.

The generally accepted characteristics of Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) are: [1] [2] [3] [5]

  1. generally due to unusual or unaccustomed muscular activity (What did you do that was new or different?)

  2. most often associated with eccentric (lengthening) contraction versus concentric (shortening) loading. For example, when your torso returns slowly to the floor after a sit-up (eccentric for rectus abdominus) versus the sit-up itself (concentric for rectus abdominus). Another example is lifting and lowering a barbell using your biceps:

Isometric contraction

  1. general period of onset is 24 hours or so after exercise-incident, peaks around 24-72 hours after exercise-incident, and then mostly subsides (versus a muscle/tendon STRAIN or ligament SPRAIN, which continues beyond this timeline).

The two major associated theories for DOMS:

  1. “The view taken here (see also Morgan & Allen, 1999) is that the damage process begins with overstretch of sarcomeres. [1]

The damage process begins with overstretch of sarcomeres

“Postulated series of events leading to muscle damage from eccentric exercise:

  1. During an active lengthening, longer, weaker sarcomeres are stretched onto the descending limb of their length-tension relation where they lengthen rapidly, uncontrollably, until they are beyond myofilament overlap and tension in passive structures has halted further lengthening. Repeated overextension of sarcomeres leads to their disruption.
  2. Muscle fibres with disrupted sarcomeres in series with still-functioning sarcomeres show a shift in optimum length for tension in the direction of longer muscle lengths. When the region of disruption is large enough it leads to membrane damage. This could be envisaged as a two-stage process, beginning with tearing of t-tubules. Any fall in tension at this point would be reversible with caffeine (see text).
  3. It would be followed by damage to the sarcoplasmic reticulum, uncontrolled Ca2+ release from its stores and triggering of a local injury contracture. That, in turn, would raise muscle passive tension. If the damage was extensive enough, parts of the fibre, or the whole fibre, would die. This fall in tension would not be recoverable with caffeine.
  4. Breakdown products of dead and dying cells would lead to a local inflammatory response associated with tissue oedema and soreness.”

(Source: The Journal of Physiology, Volume 537, Issue 2, pages 333–345, December 2001)

  1. “The alternative view is that the starting point is damage to components of the excitation-contraction (E-C) coupling process. In a recent review, Warren et al. (2001) summarised their position by declaring that 75% or more of the decline in tension after eccentric exercise was attributable to a failure of the E-C coupling process. The remaining damage seen during the first few days after the exercise was attributed by the authors to physical disruption of the tension-bearing elements within the muscle. So the suggestion is that most of the primary damage arises in the E-C coupling system and only a small component occurs at the level of the sarcomeres. Supporting evidence comes from the observation that in mouse muscle the post-exercise deficit in tension can be recovered with caffeine (Warren et al. 1993; Balnave & Allen, 1995). In the first of these studies, tension was recovered with 50 mm caffeine, which releases Ca2+ from the sarcoplasmic reticulum and leads to development of a contracture in the muscle. In the second, 10 mm caffeine was used to potentiate tension in single fibres in response to direct electrical stimulation. It was concluded that in mouse fibres changes in E-C coupling may be a major contributor to the observed fall in tension after eccentric contractions (Allen, 2001). [2] [4]

Neither of these theories will be resolved without:

  1. a way to measure pain objectively, and

  2. a way to measure the biochemical millieu of the area from “start to finish” in a controlled setting. This is a key area for fMRI studies.

What does it all mean??

Isometric contractions may not build hypertonicity (excessive tension) as quickly, but they will also produce less widespread micro-damage, with its resultant pain and inflammation lasting up to 4 days. This may allow you to resume continuing strengthening faster than if you concentrate mainly on eccentric strengthening. This does not make it less valuable, simply more dangerous to the user of new methods/exercises It also makes them more needful of longer recovery periods in order to avoid repeated and deeper strain/sprain.

[1] Delayed onset muscle soreness (Wiki)

[2] Muscle damage from eccentric exercise: mechanism, mechanical signs, adaptation and clinical applications

[3] Eccentric exercise-induced injuries to contractile and cytoskeletal muscle fibre components

[4] Mechanisms of Exercise-Induced Muscle Fibre Injury

[5] Sprains, Strains and Other Soft-Tissue Injuries

If one had a probable hernia that has gone undiagnosed by a doctor, and which is negatively impacting one’s quality of life, what should one do?

First, it’s good that one see a doctor, even if that doctor is unable diagnose the problem. If there is no diagnosis of hernia, however, below is some information concerning the muscle-strain aspect of this issue.

This presentation of symptoms is consistent with a strain of the external oblique muscle of the abdominals (shown in red, below):

Lateral abdominals

The strain can result in a trigger point, which is a hyperirritable locus, or “knot,” within a taut muscle band that refers (sends) pain to a location distant to it (pictured as circles in the above picture). The trigger point we’re concerned with is located in the bands of external oblique about 1-2″ above the inguinal ligament (groin line). This is the lower circle in the picture. If you lean forward a bit, to relax this muscle, you can feel the fibers of this muscle going in a diagonal line:

Anterior view of the abdominal muscles

You can palpate (feel) this muscle quite easily, as it is very near the surface of the body:

Abdomen: Iliocecal Junction

After you’ve found the taut, guitar-string-like band of external oblique, do the following:

  1. Apply heat to the area first. This will help relax the muscle fibers and flush pain chemicals from the tissue. This also dilates the blood/lymph vessels and brings fresh blood to the area, making it easier to “dissolve” the trigger point (#3, below).

  2. Run your fingers up and down the band (guitar-string) of the external oblique muscle to find a “knot” (trigger point) or point of “exquisite tenderness.”

  3. Push on the trigger point for up to 1-2 minutes. It should feel as if it is “dissolving,” softening, or simply becoming less sensitive. Keep the pressure on until it feels done “dissolving.”

You can also use ice packs along the lower ribs to decrease motor nerve over-activation to this muscle.

(For more information on the Abdominal external oblique muscle, please click on the highlighted text.)

Next, It is important to take the external oblique muscle through its full range of motion following trigger point release. The following stretches are helpful:

  • A full (careful, non-painful) lunge:

A full (careful, non-painful) lunge

Please be careful not to take the front knee more forward than that side’s foot (which can strain that side’s knee). Observe the upright calf angle here on the forward leg.

  • A good side-stretch:

A good side-stretch

Observe that the person reaches up and back over the side being stretched, which directly stretches external oblique

If there is pain during these stretches, fall back to a position where there is no pain, just a sensation of “pull/stretch.” Then relax/breathe until you don’t feel the pain anymore.

If there is sharp pain at any point during these exercises, STOP immediately and ice the area of sharp pain. Wait until all pain or tension in the area has passed. Then try again, going much slower and easier.  

If these techniques do not work within one week of daily practice, more interventional techniques (trigger point injection or nerve block) may be in order, which a pain management specialist can determine.

In my practice, I have found that roughly half of the cases respond quickly and well to these simple techniques. More severe strains (most often sports injuries, and minus hernia diagnoses) require the deeper interventional techniques mentioned above.

What is the difference between massage parallel to one's muscle fibers and massage perpendicular to them?

What is the difference between massage parallel to one’s muscle fibers and massage perpendicular to them?

The answer will, at least in part, depend on the massage technique you are using for the myofascial fibers.

The principal objective of friction, or “stripping” massage (gliding the finger(s), hand or tool parallel to the fibers), is to empty the venous and lymphatic channels, which encourages better circulation at the deepest layers of the tissue.

Cross-fiber work (Active Release Technique or ART, “deep tissue”, etc.) mainly addresses the breakup of adhesive connective tissue.

Reference: “The Muscular Force Transmission System: Role of the Intramuscular Connective Tissue”, by Andrea Turrina, PT, Miguel Antonio Martínez-González, PT, PhD, and Carla Stecco, MD. Published online on June 7, 2012

How would you go about finding an experienced RSI therapist?

How would you go about finding an experienced RSI therapist?

The most important first step in finding a well-trained and experienced RSI therapist is to find a great physician who is a specialist in occupational injuries (such as RSI). This doctor must be committed to referring to a good hand, physical, or manual (massage) therapist who has the training, experience and track record of success in treating RSI and associated dysfunctions.

I have had great success in working with occupational physicians at the major hospitals in San Francisco (where my practice is located). No one knows how hard these gentleman and ladies work; they are a credit to their profession. My current favorites are Jules Steimnitz, MD (at St. Luke’s), and Elliott Krames, MD, and Robert Markison, MD (UCSF). They have been exemplary physicians to their patients over several decades, and I am proud to work with them. They don’t monkey about in deciding the best and most comprehensive course of action for RSI cases, and they are willing to go to bat with insurance companies that drag their feet or are blatantly obstructive.

I believe the very best Hand Therapist in SF is Pam Silverman, LHT at Hand Therapy of San Francisco. If I had RSI, and I didn’t know which doctor to choose, or even with whom to consult, Pam would be my first stop. She has worked with, and on, the best.

Yelp is a good resource for finding good therapists, but the quality of the reviews are spotty sometimes, as they are written by patients. Use with caution when vetting medical talent.

The last resource (or perhaps the first) is your gut. Check out a therapist’s website. Talk to them. Check out their CV/resume. Check out their reviews. If you give them a “try-out” session, be ruthless: do you feel relief or not?  Have they helped you with tension reduction and helpful advice, or not?

In the end, medicine is a service, one that serves the patient. The US is a free market, and each patient is beholden only to themselves and their recovery. Find your best medical “servant” who will help you recover the fastest. Settle for nothing; life is too short.