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Can High-Altitude Affect Your TMJ? Insights for Mountain Climbers

Every year, thousands of adventurous individuals climb mountains to find a sense of peace and a unique perspective of the world. Mountaineering is a beloved hobby that is truly unmatched in the feelings of accomplishment and exhilaration it can provide. But as dreamy and wonderful as it can be, mountain climbing can also pose significant risks, from frozen toes to muscle fatigue—a less commonly discussed risk is the potential effect of high altitude on the temporomandibular joint (TMJ). Scientists and climbers alike have been paying closer attention to the potential link between mountain climbing and TMJ health.

TMJ: What It Is

The temporomandibular joint (TMJ) consists of a hinge joint located in the jaw, connecting the jawbone to the skull. This joint allows you to move your jaw up and down and side to side, making it one of the most significantly utilized joints for everyday activities such as talking, chewing, and laughing. When dysfunction develops in the TMJ, it can result in pain or stiffness and can make everyday tasks extremely challenging. It is estimated that approximately 10 million Americans are affected by TMJ dysfunction.

How High Altitude can Affect TMJs

Research has shown that several factors associated with high altitude can potentially contribute to TMJ dysfunction. Your body can become dehydrated more easily at high altitudes than when at sea level, leading to dry mouth and lips. Dehydration can exacerbate muscle tightness in the head, face, and neck. Additionally, high levels of adrenaline and other stress hormones released when climbing can contribute to air hunger, tightness of the throat, and increased muscle tension in the jaw and neck. Finally, common mountain sins such as chewing hard or crunchy snacks to keep energy up can lead to excessive movement of the jaw and strain the muscles and ligaments that attach to the TMJ.

Best Practices for Preventing/Treating TMJ Dysfunction

When engaging in high-altitude activities, it is important to keep a few preventative measures in mind to help reduce the risk of developing TMJ dysfunction.

Stay Hydrated

Adequate hydration is key to preventing dehydration, which can intensify muscle tensions in the neck and jaw. Try to drink plenty of water for several days before and during your mountain trip to reduce the risks of dehydration.

Stretch Regularly

Light stretching exercises to the neck, jaw, and face can work wonders to alleviate tension and improve range of motion.

Use a Mouth Guard

Mouth guards can help prevent grinding and clenching of the teeth, which can tighten the muscles in the face, neck, and jaw.

Utilize Proper Technique

When climbing at high altitudes, it is especially important to use proper climbing technique. Avoid excess tension of the jaw and neck muscles by keeping shoulders low and relaxed and breathing to decrease tension in the upper neck, throat, and jaw.

Taking Care of Your TMJ while Climbing

If you are a mountain climber who is worried about the potential effect of high altitude on your TMJ, you may be happy to know that there are plenty of resources and support systems out there to help you avoid and/or treat any potential dysfunction if it arises. Consider consulting a physical therapist who can help you develop an exercise program tailored to your needs, along with relaxation techniques to help alleviate muscle tension. In addition, a dentist may be able to assist in finding an appropriate mouth guard to prevent nighttime clenching and grinding.


Climbing mountains is a fascinating and exhilarating activity, but it is important to be aware of the potential health risks. High altitudes can exacerbate tension in the muscles of the head, neck, and face, increasing the potential for TMJ dysfunction. Mountain climbers should take preventative measures such as staying hydrated and using good climbing technique to help reduce the risk of TMJ dysfunction. If treatment is needed, physical therapists and dentists can offer the necessary support and exercise routines. Remember, with a little care and attention, it is entirely possible to enjoy mountain climbing without the burden of TMJ dysfunction.