A clenched jaw is an unfortunate side-effect of a stressful life. You may be overworking your jaw if you grind your teeth at night, eat too many hard foods, or have a bad posture! If left untreated, these symptoms can lead to chronic issues known as TMJ disorders.
Smiling, talking, yawning, chewing—we use our facial muscles intensely every day. But we don’t really think about the muscles that much, with the exception of worrying about wrinkles perhaps. When a yoga instructor, meditation guide, or physical therapist instructs their clients to relax their face and jaw, most people are surprised at how much tension they are carrying in their facial muscles!
The TMJ, or temporomandibular joint, is the joint that connects your lower jaw—the mandible—to your skull by the temples, hence its name. The muscles that connect in the joint stretch downwards over your cheeks, jaw (the masseter muscle), and neck, and up to your cranium (the temporalis muscle). The muscles in the back of your neck also participate in the proper positioning and work of the TMJ.
The TMJ is responsible for holding your jaw together and, for example, chewing and swallowing. It is a direct or indirect meeting point for several important muscles in your face and neck area so a problem there might also be signalling a problem in the connected areas. TMJ problems are a tell-tale sign that there is too much stress in your life.
The “proper” name for TMJ disorders would be TMD, for temporomandibular disorders, but the name of the joint itself is usually used to refer to the issues related to it.
If your jaw is constantly clenched and you are grinding your teeth at night or even during the day, it is almost certain that it is happening due to stress and anxiety. But let’s get some of the other potential reasons out of the way first.
The positioning and structure of the jaw can be slightly different for different people. If you hear a clicking or popping sound when opening and closing your mouth, but it isn’t accompanied by pain and discomfort, it could just mean that the capsule —the fibrous membrane that surrounds the joint — has a slightly unusual placement, causing the joint to “jump” instead of sliding open smoothly.
Such structural quirks are genetic. A joint that rubs might wear down more quickly over time so monitor it, but don’t worry too much—the popping on its own is not a disorder, it is just a small peculiarity in your body.
TMJ issues can also be linked to tooth placement and to the general health of your mouth. Tooth infections or problems with your molars can also cause the TMJ to flare up.
Likewise, a trauma can lead to jaw displacement. If you experience a fall or other force injury followed by pain in the jaw it is worth having your facial structures checked. The trauma doesn’t have to be to your head or face to affect the TMJ; it can be anywhere in your body, for example your feet or your back. Your GP or dentist will most likely have an X-ray made of your jaw to be sure there is no injury.
TMJ disorders are also often linked to other health conditions. The jaw functions as a weak link signalling other, more serious disorders such as allergies, breathing difficulties, chronic muscle and nerve pain in certain areas, sleep and anxiety disorders, irritable bowel syndrome, and others. Jaw pain has also long been recognized as a potential sign of rheumatoid and other types of arthritis.
If you experience pain in the jaw, try paying attention to where your tongue is resting during the day. When not in use the tongue should lie behind your upper teeth, resting gently against the roof of your mouth. If it doesn’t fall into this position naturally, it can be quite difficult to “train” the tongue, but it is possible. If the resting tongue lies between your molars, against the bottom teeth, or anywhere else, it exerts extra pressure on the neck and jaw.
The jaw and face exercises featured at the end of this article will also help with positioning the tongue.
Unfortunately, the modern office lifestyle greatly contributes to TMJ disorders. Not only because of the stress it creates, but also due to the postures we use daily.
The forward head or “tech-neck” posture we often find ourselves in when using the computer or smartphone, and also when driving, puts a great deal of stress on your whole neck and upper back area. Your lower jaw either protrudes or goes backwards, straining the TMJ.
The forward head posture is usually accompanied by a forward shift of the whole upper body, including the arms and shoulders. Stretch your arms out and back to open your chest and move your shoulder blades as often as possible.
To further alleviate this problem, use an ergonomic chair, sit up straight or lean back when working, and take frequent pauses to gently stretch your head and neck to all sides, including downward and downwards diagonally (as if looking at your armpits). This will release tension in the muscles.
If only one side of the jaw hurts, which is usually the case, make sure you are not resting your chin in your hand when working at the computer or using your phone. By placing your chin into your hand, you start slouching, which hurts your posture. It is also a forward head position, and a lop-sided at that. Plus, by pushing your chin up, you are directly putting pressure on your already misaligned jaw. It can be hard to get out of a habit, but training yourself to sit up straight will have many health benefits.
Work on your general posture and do both strength and cardio workouts regularly. Pay special attention to releasing the tension in your shoulders, neck and chest area.
Do at least 2 to 3 moderate strength workouts every week to strengthen the muscles in your shoulders, upper arms, neck, and upper back.
Just like stretching your muscles, make a conscious effort to relax your jaw at least every few hours. Set an alarm on your phone, if needed. However, if your jaw is clenched and your TMJ is already acting up, it might not be possible to relax your jaw at will. The exercises below can help.
You can try one of the following techniques to instantly release tension in the jaw:
Place a flat object (preferably wooden or plastic, such as an ice cream stick or a pencil) between your front teeth and hold it. Experiment with the placement of the object but rely on the teeth to hold it in place. This will take off the pressure off the TMJ and you should feel relief.
Relax your face. Place the heels of your palms on your temples and slowly drive them down both sides of your face simultaneously, allowing them to open your jaw fully as they come down. Apply enough pressure to release tension. Repeat several times as needed.
Massage the muscles around your ears. Place two fingers on either side of the ear: ring finger and little finger on the temple, middle finger and index finger on the back of your neck (the splenius muscle). Apply pressure and move both hands up and down to release tension. Move down to the masseter muscle in the jaw and repeat the same motion.
Use a warm compress on your jaw. Place a moist, warm compress on your jaw 3 to 4 times a day for 15 minutes to relieve muscle soreness.
Painkillers such as ibuprofen are also useful in reducing pain and inflammation.
Larger lifestyle changes will be needed to overcome the symptoms of TMJ disorders. Maintaining a good posture and general health are very important steps. Stretch your arms, chest and shoulders every 1 to 2 hours when working.
TMJ disorders are often connected with sleep issues. Use breathing and relaxation techniques to fight anxiety throughout the day and before going to bed. Adjust your pillow and mattress for optimal sleeping posture.
A night guard or “bite plate” might be useful to protect your teeth from grinding and your jaw from clenching at night. A personalized night guard can be prescribed by your GP or dentist.
Don’t eat hard foods such as nuts, raw carrots, or toffee if your TMJ is acting up. Don’t chew gum. Allow the jaw to relax.
Make a conscious effort to chew food on both sides of your jaw interchangeably.
Massage your face daily with a little oil, face cream, or cocoa butter to reduce friction. Choose a set time to help you do it regularly, for example, before going to bed. Self-massage is the key to relaxing your face.
Always remember to wash your hands and use clean products when touching your face.
Some massage techniques include:
Massage your face in small, circular motions on both sides simultaneously. Start with the TMJ and, massaging continuously, move down to the jawbone then up to the temples and back again.
Use your fingers or knuckles to massage the masseter muscle. Start at the TMJ and move diagonally down to the sides of your mouth while consciously relaxing the jaw. Repeat as needed. Try it with your mouth closed or open.
Do exercises to improve the strength and mobility of the jaw. Use a mirror to maintain proper posture and be careful not to overwork the jaw.
Place the tip of the tongue at the roof of the mouth by the front teeth. While holding the tongue there, slowly open your mouth as far as you can and close it back up. Notice at which point and position the jaw clicks. Repeat 10 times.
While still holding the tongue up, carefully move the lower jaw side to side 10 times. Then front to back. This will help with the mobility of the jaw and “grease” the joint a little.
Try “chin tucks”. With your mouth closed, stand up straight and move your head straight backward (as in the “Egyptian” disco move, but only backwards) and hold for a few seconds. Repeat 5 times. This will help reverse the effects of forward head posture. The same exercise can be done when standing or sitting by a wall and sliding your head back and upwards against the wall. Be careful not to overstretch.
For very severe cases, surgery might be needed to reposition the bone structures the face or the joint itself. Specialized oral or maxillofacial surgeons perform these operations.
Botox injections are sometimes used to treat TMJ. Botox can be injected into the masseter muscle, temple, or forehead to relieve tension in the jaw. This procedure is relatively safe but lasts only for a few months and does not address the root cause of the disorder.
Alternative medicine also offers various treatments such as acupuncture and aromatherapy that might help alleviate symptoms.
Don’t be shy about mentioning jaw pain or tension to your doctor. Jaw pain can be tricky. Even if it isn’t very sharp or serious, it will still get you down as all chronic pain conditions do. There are a number of treatments available. By paying more attention to your body and responding to its needs you will be able to overcome the unpleasant sensations in your jaw.
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