Vail health column: Were you born crooked? |

Vail health column: Were you born crooked?

Julie Peterson, MPT
Health Insights

When I was 17 years old, I had major jaw surgery. The surgeon and my family agreed that I was born crooked. The plan was to surgically straighten me out. My jaw was broken, moved right, shifted back and resized. I spent six weeks with my jaw wired shut, living on smoothies and grape juice. I lost sensation in my chin and couldn't fully open my mouth for months. At least I was straight.

Unfortunately, it didn't last. I saw a recent picture of myself and noticed something disconcerting: My jaw was crooked again! It shifted over to the left, just like before the surgery. It never occurred to me that the problem would come back, so I guess I never looked for it. I also overlooked something very simple: the jaw is a joint. Just as muscles move knees and elbows, they move the jaw. Why was I shifting left?

Nothing happens for no reason. I found some childhood pictures and it turns out I wasn't born crooked after all. It appears the problem started in fifth grade, when I became competitive with soccer. I vividly remember taking a close-range ball to the right side of my face. Just like muscles in the knee can shut down in response to trauma (painful inhibition), so can the muscles in the jaw.

Whenever a muscle stops working, another will pick up the slack. It's a protective mechanism. Think of stepping on a tack or placing your hand on a hot stove. The muscles that move us forward shut down, and the muscles that pull away will engage. It works that way throughout the body.

With the help of neurokinetic therapy, I found that the muscle that shifts the jaw left was overactive (and exquisitely painful to the touch). The muscle that shifts the jaw right was offline. Opening my jaw was more of a diagonal zigzag than an open-close. Regularly doing a bit of massage to the former and activation of the later has me back on track, literally and figuratively.

The takeaway is that A) the jaw is a joint and is subject to imbalances, just like every other joint in the body. There are solutions that do not require surgery or devices (bite guards, retainers, etc.) and B) If a problem comes back, look for another solution, ideally one that involves active participation. The solution is not fixing the what (a crooked body part), but the why (long-standing muscle imbalance). A little retraining of the brain goes a long way.

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Julie Peterson, MPT, is the owner of Concierge Physical Therapy Colorado. She is a certified neurokinetic therapy specialist with a strong background in manual therapy. She can be reached at 970-306-3006 and For more information, visit