I Tried A Face Massage For TMJ Pain – And It Worked
My sculpted cheeks are an added bonus.
Standing Appointment is our review series that investigates the best new and notable cosmetic procedures in the aesthetics space and determines whether or not they are worth trying for yourself. This week, our beauty writer tried an intraoral face massage for TMJ.
As a beauty editor, I think it’s healthy to approach any product or treatment like a coffee date: with a healthy amount of skepticism and with tempered expectations. Because, as tempting as it is to pin our hopes on their promises of fixing your major skin concerns, I’ve tried enough products and treatments to know the results often fall short. This was my mindset when an esthetician offered an intraoral massage to help relieve my TMJ pain during a recent sculpting facial. However, it turns out that having a skilled facialist massage your mouth from the inside out can loosen up jaw tightness.
I was first introduced to the benefits of an intraoral massage by Lynn Gallagher, licensed esthetician and holistic facialist at Note To Self Wellness in Philadelphia. A specialist in facial massage, Gallagher’s practice centers on creating a therapeutic, results-driven, and uplifting experience for clients, with a focus on nurturing skin rather than manipulating it. “Oftentimes in the field of aesthetics, especially with advanced treatments that usually rely on more progressive, aggressive, abrasive, or skin-challenging modalities (think lasers, microneedling, and chemical peels), the results are high but the energetics are low,” she says. “There is not an emphasis on touch that is slow, intentional, rhythmic, and has resonance at the cellular level (on the whole body, mind, spirit, and nervous system).”
During Gallagher’s facials, she treat clients’ skin with a traditional cleansing, exfoliation, and masking routine, but she also incorporates massages tailored to clients’ individual skin needs, including gua sha, lymphatic, lifting, and intraoral massages. Gallagher is certified in Yakov Gershkovich Sculptural Face Lifting, which she uses with intraoral massage to work on clients with conditions like TMJ, headaches, sinus pressure, and deeper tension.
As I happily tucked myself under the weighted blanket and relaxed into the warmth of the treatment table, Gallagher began by asking me about my general skin concerns, my skin care routine, and my skin triggers. I listed off acne, post-inflammatory erythema, and general sensitivity from testing various skin care and makeup products for work as my main issues.
Then, she asked me if I have any particular tension and discomfort in my face, to which I replied TMJ. Formally known as temporomandibular joint disorder, TMJ “usually causes pain and restricted mobility of the jaw,” says Sandra Chiu L.Ac., acupuncturist, herbalist, and Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioner. The disorder is usually caused by stress and general tension in the body (more on that later). And while my main symptoms are getting my jaw stuck and struggling to open my mouth in the mornings, other symptoms can include jaw pain, headaches, and a misaligned bite.
Based on my skin care concerns and jaw discomfort, Gallagher decided on a routine double cleanse, gentle exfoliation with a blueberry extract and lactic acid scrub, and extractions, followed by gua sha, lymphatic drainage, lifting, and, intraoral massages. The facial would close out with some soothing lifting massage, a little gua sha and cupping, and Gallagher’s choice of serums and cream for hydration, barrier repair, and an overall glow.
What Happens During An Intraoral Massage?
After massaging my face, neck, and décolletage, Gallagher moved onto her specialty intraoral massage. In her practice, Gallagher states that intraoral massage is “complementary to the external massage and (in my opinion) is the only way to fully release stuck tension in the jaw and mouth area.” An intraoral massage is exactly what it sounds like: a massage inside of the mouth to work the muscles entirely, yielding a more relaxed, toned, and symmetrical appearance to the skin and alleviating jaw tension.
Gallagher wiped her hands clean, put on a pair of disposable gloves, then applied a thick mask on my lips to prevent the skin from splitting. As she put her fingers in my mouth and started massaging my cheeks from the inside out, her touch was slow, rhythmic, and intentional.
I wasn’t sure if she could feel any knots in my cheeks or any other else from the inside, and it felt a little foreign to have another person’s fingers in my mouth, but it still felt deeply soothing. When she withdrew her fingers after roughly 15 minutes, my mouth felt a lot looser and relaxed.
My Experience & Results
After more gua sha and a little cupping, Gallagher massaged the Cosmedix Cell ID Serum into my skin, before layering the Cosmedix Surge Hyaluronic Acid Booster Surge Serum on top, and sealing everything in with the Cosmedix Harmonize Moisturizer. When she was finished, I finally sat up and admired the results — my skin was radiant and supple. My brows were so lifted it almost looked like I was surprised, and I couldn’t remember the last time my cheeks ever looked so high and plump. My chin and jaw, which I often despaired over, looked sleeker and more contoured. (My fiancé later exclaimed that I was as glowy as the moon.)
Best of all, when I opened my mouth, the usual click and left-pitched adjustment that I had become accustomed to were significantly improved. Not only did my jaw pitch less, but there was almost no click at all. I opened and closed my mouth a few more times, amazed at the difference. Gallagher gave me a hug and said that she would check in with me in a few days to see how my skin and TMJ were doing, before sending me on my merry way.
How Long Do The Results Last?
While the immediate effects of my treatment were impressive, I was even more stunned by the other lasting results of Gallagher’s massage technique. My skin was luminous and glowy for days after the facial and the improvements of my TMJ symptoms have lasted three weeks.
Another surprising result I didn’t bank on getting out of the facial massage is the improvement in my shoulder mobility. I didn’t realize it, but there was so much tension in my chest muscles that it was interfering with the range I could move my shoulders. While I had gone into that facial with realistic expectations on what a massage could do for my skin, I ended up learning so much more about the interconnectivity of the entire body.
Sure enough, when Gallagher checked in on me a few days later, she also sent an Instagram post about how tightness in the hips can be connected to TMJ (I had mentioned to her that a prior massage revealed I have a lot of tightness in my hips). While I didn’t entirely understand all of the info in the video, my personal experience leads me to believe there’s truth in the connection.
Chiu says that in TCM, the jaw can be seen as the “hip” of the face, and “it’s possible to release the hips, by releasing the jaw, and vice versa because of their holistic relationship.” For example, Chiu cites midwifery and birthing practices, where women are often told to relax and unclench their jaws in order for the birth canal to open to its full capacity. When working with TMJ clients in her practice, Chiu often thinks about “working with the hips and gluteal muscles as a way to reinforce the release work I'm doing directly on the jaw (and neck).”
Is Getting An Intraoral Massage Worth It?
Gallagher’s facial single-handedly changed my entire view on how facials can (and should) be practiced, and while I would love to visit her treatment room weekly, that might be a little expensive. A two-hour intensive facial (with two additional modalities) with her is $250, and a Sculptural Facelift and intraoral massage service alone is $300.
So, until the next time I’m able to visit Gallagher, it’s at-home gua sha and intraoral massages for me. The Lanshin Massager by Acera has been perfect for releasing the tension in my neck and chest, and I’ve been using their sculpting spoon to literally massage the inside of my mouth and work on cheek tension. Chiu’s protocol for TMJ massage is to find a tight, tender spot and use your tool to make circles on top of it for one minute, then reverse direction of your circle and repeat for another minute, with light to medium pressure.
But ultimately, the key to an at-home massage routine is consistency and intention. And as a new convert to the expansive benefits of massages, I’ll be massaging my face every night.