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The unexpected relationship between underbites and bad posture

While it’s common knowledge that your orodental health can serve as an indicator of other (seemingly unrelated) health factors, its connection to your posture isn’t as well-known. It turns out, however, that the positioning of your jaw can have a significant impact on your head and neck posture — and that problems like TMJ or a severe underbite can make postural problems hard to treat!

How the Jaw Stabilizes the Head and Neck

The musculature of the neck is incredibly complex and deeply layered, and the muscles that keep your head stable aren’t the kinds of muscles that you can individually flex; they’re passive, “always on” muscles that respond to your posture and movements.

With one exception.

Studies have found that clenching your jaw has a positive impact on postural stability, decreasing postural sway in general and partially counteracting the impact of limited visibility on posture. While your neck and head stabilizers are hard to engage and train directly, they do respond to cross-signaling from the anterior flexors and extensors of the jaw — which means that problems with your jaw can lead to the under-engagement (and atrophy) of those same stabilizers.

A good way to visualize how your jaw does this is to think of it as a fulcrum for your anterior neck muscles. Your anterior neck muscles are strong, but their strength is only useful if they have leverage.

When your jaw is properly aligned, your mouth is closed, and your jaw muscles are engaged, your anterior neck muscles can efficiently stabilize your neck. When your jaw isn’t aligned and your jaw muscles aren’t engaged, it doesn’t matter how strong your anterior neck muscles are; they don’t have leverage, and your posterior neck muscles (the ones that tend to hurt when you have bad posture) end up chronically overworked.

Jaw issues aren’t the root cause of all neck problems, but they can interfere with long-term progress for patients with postural problems. No amount of physical therapy can replace the jaw when it comes to stabilizing the neck, and ongoing or worsening jaw problems can often cause setbacks for patients.

How this Influences the Treatment Process(es) for Adults

This information isn’t just important for physical therapy patients — it can also influence your dental treatment plan. Postural pain, posture-related chronic inflammation, and the resultant mobility limitations can have an impact on the post-surgical recovery process for TMJ surgeries, dental cosmetic surgery, and orthodontic procedures.

Chronic neck pain has a tendency to synergise with other head and neck problems, which can lead to notable short-term mobility limitations and extended recovery timelines for post-surgical dental patients. Those issues, in turn, make it a lot harder for patients to clean and maintain the surgical site, which can result in an increased rate of infection. As a result, your dentist may recommend that you go through physical therapy leading up to the surgery, and adjust your post-surgical prescriptions to account for these obstacles.

On the plus side, talking to Dr. Halsema about head and neck pain may lead to her recommending non-surgical procedures that you might not have considered, which may make related surgeries unnecessary. A combination of physical therapy for postural pain, low-impact orthodontics for tooth alignment, and nighttime retainer usage to limit involuntary jaw clenching and jaw inflammation can often have a greater impact on pain reduction than focusing on a single (invasive) approach.

How this Influences the Treatment Process(es) for Adolescents

For adolescents, understanding the relationship between jaw problems and neck pain can prevent the development of long-term problems, especially for student athletes.

While postural problems usually stem from long term ergonomic and environmental factors, acute sports injuries to the head and neck can rapidly exacerbate them. A combination of jaw misalignment, postural problems, and an acute injury such as whiplash is usually a recipe for chronic pain, but prompt treatment coordinated with Dr. Halsema can prevent that.

For adolescents with moderate to severe underbites or other jaw misalignment problems, Dr. Halsema may recommend starting orthodontic treatment at a younger age than typical. The objective here isn’t cosmetic — long-term postural issues take longer to fix than to create, and fixing the dental component at a young age is an effective preventative measure.

It’s also important to talk to Dr. Halsema (and your family doctor) about the overall impacts of posture and dental health on children. Children live in a world that isn’t built for for their postural health, and it’s easy to lose sight of that in the face of a busy schedule. Coordinating with your dentist and doctors early on can help you keep small issues from turning into large ones.