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Ep 177 - The Masseter: A Lesson in Legos:"The Rebel MT"with Allison Denney

A colorful wall of stacked Lego bricks.

The muscles of mastication are many. But if one of them goes astray, it can create a downward spiral into a series of pain responses that no one wants. In this episode, Allison takes a closer look at the masseter, its intricate attachments, and its similarities to a Lego brick.

Allison's column in Massage & Bodywork magazine:

The Hand: A User’s Guide,” by Allison Denney, Massage & Bodywork magazine. November/December 2021, page 81.

Feelization: Connect with Clients on a Deeper Level,” by Allison Denney, Massage & Bodywork magazine, September/October 2021, page 85.

The Case for Consistency: Treating Persistent Injuries,” by Allison Denney, Massage & Bodywork magazine, July/August 2021, page 80.

Contact Allison Denney:          

Author Images
Allison Denney, The Rebel MT.
Author Bio

Allison Denney is a certified massage therapist and certified YouTuber. You can find her massage tutorials at She is also passionate about creating products that are kind, simple, and productive for therapists to use in their practices. Her products, along with access to her blog and CE opportunities, can be found at  


This podcast sponsored by:

Anatomy Trains: 

Anatomy Trains is a global leader in online anatomy education and also provides in-classroom certification programs forstructuralintegration in the US, Canada, Australia, Europe, Japan, and China, as well as fresh-tissue cadaverdissectionlabs and weekend courses. The work of Anatomy Trains originated with founder Tom Myers, who mapped the human body into 13 myofascial meridians in his original book, currently in itsfourthedition and translated into 12 languages. The principles of Anatomy Trains are used by osteopaths,physicaltherapists,bodyworkers,massagetherapists,personaltrainers,yoga,Pilates,Gyrotonics,and other body-minded manual therapists and movement professionals. Anatomy Trains inspires these practitioners to work with holistic anatomy in treating system-wide patterns to provide improved client outcomes in terms of structure and function. 


Full Transcript

0:00:00.0 S?: Anatomy Trains is delighted to announce a brand new dissection live stream specialty class on September 18th, Lumbopelvic Stability, a one-day layer dissection with Anatomy Trains author, Tom Myers, and master dissector, Todd Garcia. The early bird price of $150 is held until September 10th. After September 10th, the price is $250. Come see the body's actual core for yourself. This course will be provided over Zoom webinar with multiple camera views, live chat and Q&A. Visit to sign up.

0:00:34.7 S?: This episode is brought to you by The Massage Mentor Institute. Diane Matkowski, also known as The Massage Mentor, and Allison Denney, also known as Rebel Massage, have teamed up to bring you The Massage Mentor Institute. MMI is a collection of teachings and education opportunities from industry leaders around the world, because your continuing education experience should be whatever you want it to be. They are building community one body part at a time, and they want you to be a part of it. Head over to today to see more, learn more, and do more.


0:01:20.9 Allison Denney: Hi, my name is Allison Denney, and this is the Rebel MT podcast, where you'll hear me forcibly colliding the worlds of anatomical jargon and humor. I believe that when you know your anatomy, the what, and you know your physiology, the how, the techniques will follow. But the loads of Latin and the gobs of Greek can make a cranium convulse. It is a little overwhelming to dip your toe into the sea of anatomical knowledge, only to find that it is a bottomless ocean. You are smart, but this is intimidating. You will get there eventually. In the meantime, let's look at things differently so that you will actually want to take a swim or at least hop in a boat and take a peak at what's under the surface.


0:02:08.8 AD: Life is like a ginormous Lego set. It starts out as this big mess of pieces. They seem disorganized and chaotic, but they're somehow memorizingly beautiful at the same time, and the potential is awe-inspiring. Oh, the things we can build with those blocks, but maybe it's also a tad overwhelming. I mean, building something out of nothing can be intimidating, to put it mildly, so we open the directions because guidance is helpful, and then we start. We lay the first couple of pieces in place and they become the foundation of everything, those first moments when something clicks, lets us know we are on the right track and onto something good. So we open the next page and keep going. We look for what to place where and lock those little bricks or experiences that seem so insignificant on their own into place. This tiny little encounter here and this funny little event there, we click and we learn and we create who we are. Like each moment as a child, when you take a step and fall down and figure out walking, or each time you eat something delicious and feel that sweet sensation of endorphins course through your body, defining what foods you love, or each time you make someone laugh or cry, crystallizing behavior patterns that work or don't work.

0:03:32.7 AD: Each of these moments is a Lego brick settling into place in your brain and building the larger structure of who you are becoming, but then at some point, as we get older, we might feel something off-kilter and figure out that one of those bricks was placed down in the wrong spot or slightly off center, and the notion that we have been heading in the wrong direction faces us like a bad grade on a test we swore we aced. It sends us off course and makes us take a hard look at where we went wrong. Guess what? This can happen with our muscles too, not that we have physically locked them into the wrong actual position. That would be comical if we all had to build our own muscular structure as we grew up. I can only imagine what some of us would end up looking like. But I don't actually think the reality is far off from that. We may not be consciously choosing where we place our muscles, but we do subconsciously dictate how we place our muscles, meaning every little movement, every nuanced position and every innate articulation that we make as we grow cements into place the foundation of our structure.

0:04:41.7 AD: So for example, there's the obvious, if we slouch too often and for too long, our paraspinals become elongated and weak, our abdominals become soft and shortened, and our spines might eventually conform to hold a more unnatural curvature. And then our backs hurt. Moment of silence here for the collective back pain felt around the world, but then there's also the not so obvious, like if you decide early on on some unconscious cellular level that you need to chew food a certain number of times before swallowing, and that chewing only on the right side of your mouth feels so much more comfortable, well, then, those muscles of mastication on that right side of your face will become slightly stronger and a tad more overbearing, this then begins to pull your mandible slightly askew to the right, which demands that those same muscles on the left side are a tad longer and quite possibly a bit weaker, which creates an overall imbalance in your facial structure, which starts to demand that your head tilt slightly to one side, which asks the muscles of your neck to work a little harder than they maybe should do, which might actually create a modest rotation of your cervical spine, which then begets a foray of downward spirals, including tension headaches, teeth grinding, tinnitus and TMJ, to name a few.

0:06:01.1 AD: Unconscious downward spirals are the stuff of life, kind of in the same way that pain teaches us how to appreciate the absence of pain, downward spirals shine a light on what we weren't already aware of. They wind up being the answers behind such mysteries as when did my wrist start bothering me, and what is this knot in my back doing there, or in this case, why do I get headaches so often? Let's dive a little bit deeper into the mechanics of mastication or the way we chew, and see if we can at least unfold a little of this peculiar mystery. There are a lot of muscles that move the jaw and the face allowing us to take food in, grind it down into smaller pieces and then eventually swallow it. The two biggest players being in the temporalis and the masseter. The former is a flat fan-like muscle that decorates the side of the skull, drops down behind the cheek bone and hooks into the back of the jaw. But the latter, the masseter, is the power house I wanna bring to center stage. Known as the strongest muscle in the body, pound for pound, the masseter is the main player in biting, chewing, teeth grinding, jaw clenching, and the frequently practiced behavior of pulling trucks. [chuckle]

0:07:15.0 AD: It wears this particular strong man crown for three reasons. One, its fibers are densely packed into a small space, two, it's considered a short arm lever, which means that it creates a lot of pull onto the lower jaw, and three, it is essentially the most exercised muscle in the body. I mean, even for those who don't talk or eat a lot, it still gets used every single day in repetition with resistance. Most of us can't say that about the rest of our muscles. Let's look at the specs. The masseter starts at the cheek bone and settles into the jaw, technically speaking, it's a little more complicated than that. In anatomical jargon, it has a superficial division and a deep division, the superficial portion originates from a thick aponeurosis on the temporal process of the zygomatic bone and the anterior two-thirds of the inferior border of the zygomatic arch, while the deep portion originates along the entire line of the zygomatic arch. Side note, I've always loved the name of this bone, zygomatic arch, it refers to your cheek bone, but for me, it conjures up memories of camping in Utah.

0:08:28.1 AD: Back to anatomy, both portions of the masseter converge on the mandible or the moving part of your jaw. The maxilla, by the way, is the upper half of your jaw where all of your top teeth emerge from and is very literally stuck to the rest of your skull, but the mandible gets all the freedom. All of the muscles involved in chewing and talking are basically teaming up to move the mandible, so this is where the masseter lands. The deep portion inserts onto the superior aspect of the ramus of the mandible and the superficial portion passes over that and inserts under the lateral aspect of the same area. Don't let the words ramus of the mandible and temporal process throw you off. A ramus is just like a bar and a process is something that sticks out. These are all just ways to connect the dots of where a muscle is and what a muscle does. And the masseter, when all is said and done, sits in the back of the cheek, lifts the jaw up from the floor, also known as elevation of the mandible, and pushes the jaw forward, also known as projection of the mandible.

0:09:33.7 AD: You can see how these two actions would be advantageous for the whole chewing thing, but I began this episode with an anecdote about Legos and what happens when one is misplaced at the beginning of a brick building endeavor. With the jaw, if we start a habit of chewing for whatever reason, that sets a cycle of dysfunctional chewing into motion, it can indeed trigger a chain of events that shares a very close relationship with pain. Thankfully, our muscles are malleable and our neuroplasticity is neuro-plastic. We don't have to surgically take everything apart and start all over. Instead, we have massage therapy. One of the most common ailments in the jaw shows up in the form of a trigger point, trigger points, as you well know, are those little spasms within a small group of muscle fibers that flare up when things aren't running smoothly. The masseter being a muscle and having fibers and getting the work out of all workouts is bound to fall victim to this and trigger points, thankfully, respond really well to body work. Try this either on yourself or with the client, but I will walk you through the self-massage version in case you wanna try this right now in the moment, and you aren't listening to this while you're actually working or driving or doing anything else that you need your hands, for that matter.

0:10:55.4 AD: Start by using both hands and placing them on either side of your head so that your palms are just above and in front of your ears, and your fingers are resting softly on the top of your head with the base of your palm start to compress in like You are squeezing your temples and slide down the sides of your face until you can feel your cheek bones allow gravity to pull at your jaw, don't force your mouth open, just let your jaw be heavy, and then slide both palms down the sides of your face at the same time, your jaw could naturally fall more open as you work down your masseters, you are creating a myofascial unwinding here, which especially considering that thick aponeurosis attachment is super important if you wanna be able to sink a little deeper into the muscle belly. Repeat this a couple of times, make sure you are not using any creams or lotions or even butters, and you will start to feel the warmth of the tissues under the skin. Once you feel like your jaw is nice and loose, like a crowd at a conference who just heard a good joke, now you can start to dig a little deeper. Keep your attention to one side at a time. Poking at too many trigger points can be like too many phones ringing at the same time, it's so much easier to just hang up than it is to answer them all. Use one hand as a support, keep it flat and soft on one side of your face and use the fingers of your opposite hand to palpate that zygomatic arch of yours.

0:12:22.3 AD: Slide down into the beginnings of the masseter, about an inch down from the cheek bone and about two inches anteriorly from your ear or towards your nose. This is the sweet spot. Now, you sink in. For some, this may be enough, referred pain from here may extend behind the ear into the jaw or up into the head, hang out with a strong but comforting pressure until that feeling fades. Then if you feel good about it, sink in a little deeper and repeat that process. Or if you're feeling adventurous, keep the pressure consistent while you begin to slowly open your jaw. You may even wanna slide that pressure down as your jaw opens, but you hold the keys to this one, so decide what feels reparative to your masseter and go with that, because going with something that feels damaging is not the goal here. Repeat this until your masseter starts to feel less like steel and more like bread dough, and then, switch over to the other side. Now that your jaw is completely loosened, you can take it off and re-set it. Just kidding. You should feel a little looser in the face though. It might even feel a bit like talking after a couple of glasses of wine or a shot of Novocaine. Okay, maybe not that extreme, but at least you have reset a couple of Legos and now it's time to see how things move.

0:13:45.1 AD: And here we are, the end of the episode. Thank you to the extraordinary crew over at ABMP for helping me get my words into your ears, and if you wanna get any of your words into my ears or more accurately into my brain via my eyeballs from a computer screen, drop me a line at That's I always wanna hear your questions, comments, suggestions or salutations. Also, if you're interested in checking out anything else I'm doing, head over to where you will find all sorts of fun things to click on, like homemade organic products for your practice, cool links to continuing education classes, thoughts I have typed up and posted here and there, and other rebel massage dabblings.

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