The United States has a jaw-clenching problem. More than 10 million people in the U.S. NIH “TMJ Disorders” View Source suffer from TMDs (Temporomandibular Disorders)—or, in simpler terms, tight jaw muscles. You may hear this condition referred to, incorrectly, as just “TMJ WebMD “Temporomandibular Joint Disorders (TMD, TMJ)” View Source ,” after the Temporomandibular Joint. You can, however, refer to it as a “TMJ disorder Cleveland Clinic “Temporomandibular Joint (TMJ) Disorders” View Source .” Whatever you choose to call it, it hurts!
But muscle pain in the jaw, grinding teeth, or tension headaches can also occur in people who don’t have TMJ disorders.
The bad news: It’s (most likely) related to stress. The good news: There are things you can do to help it. Of course, it’s hard to just stop being stressed, but you can mitigate it to alleviate the pain and clenching and prevent it from taking over your life.
Why Do Jaw Muscles Tighten Up?
Your jaw may be hurting for a variety of reasons. It’s possible that you overexerted your jaw, injured it, or have inflammation in the area. Even chronic stress Cleveland Clinic “Temporomandibular Joint (TMJ) Disorders” View Source can lead to tightness in your jaw muscles, especially if you clench your jaw or grind your teeth.
TMDs cause pain and discomfort in the jaw joint and the muscles that control its movement. The temporomandibular joint is the most complicated joint in the body NIH “TMJ Disorders” View Source due to the combination of hinging and sliding motions. It’s also extremely delicate. “You have muscles, cartilage, bone, ligaments, nerves, and blood vessels all in a very small space, being moved in a complex fashion, thousands of times a day,” Chris Salierno, DDS, Chief Dental Officer at Tend, tells us. “Unfortunately, that means there is ample opportunity for one element to stop working properly and set off a chain reaction for the rest of the system.”
TMD often affects women more than men NIH “TMJ Disorders” View Source , but scientists still don’t know the exact cause of TMD. Common symptoms include a painful clicking or popping along your jaw when you open it, a change in how your teeth fit together, or a general stiffness and pain around the jaw or neck.
This condition can manifest as sudden discomfort in the jaw or pain around the joints that accompanies biting. For many, the symptoms of TMJ disorders can often appear seemingly out of nowhere, which is why it’s important to manage them early on.
Stress or anxiety can jaw muscles to tighten. This can result in tension headaches that you may feel around the base of your skull. Often, when people are stressed, they’ll clench their jaw without meaning to or realizing it. Over time, this can lead to pain and fatigue in the area.
It can be tough to remember not to clench your jaw when you’re stressed, but it’s possible to break the habit. We made some cute little tags to remind you to do just that—set them as your phone background or print them out and stick ’em where you need them most.
Teeth grinding or clenching, also called “bruxism,” can be a sign of stress or anxiety. It can lead to sensitive and chipped teeth, facial pain, headaches, similar symptoms of TMDs, and locking of the jaw.
Bruxism requires an official diagnosis, so make sure you’re going in for your twice-yearly dental cleanings. Your dentist should note any signs of bruxism, such as chipped or worn-down teeth, and may recommend a night guard to protect your teeth if you’re still clenching. “A night guard’s primary function is to protect your teeth from dangerous grinding actions. They may also reduce the intensity of the jaw muscle pain, but they probably won’t eliminate it,” says Salierno.
But what of the underlying stress behind bruxism? Things like regular meditation Mayo Clinic “Bruxism (teeth grinding)” View Source , yoga, and breathwork can promote relaxation and help you further prevent teeth grinding. You can also address anxiety with a licensed therapist. If you aren’t sure where to start with meditation, try one of our favorite meditation or breathwork apps.
This autoimmune inflammatory disorder can affect muscles and joints in your body. In fact, 50% of those with rheumatoid arthritis Contemporary Clinical Dentistry “Rheumatoid arthritis affecting temporomandibular joint” View Source also have TMJ symptoms. While the relationship between the two is unknown, both arthritis and TMJ disorders can involve inflammation of the tissues lining the joints, which can cause pain and discomfort.
You should seek medical care from a doctor to help manage these issues, especially if they are chronic or get worse with time. But you may be able to manage some of the discomfort on your own, too, with some exercises.
Tips for Quick Jaw Pain Relief
Flare-ups can appear seemingly out of nowhere. If you need quick relief to focus on work or enjoy your night, try some of these tips:
- Use a hot or cold compress. You can even find one designed for TMJ, which wraps around the head and stays in place without having to hold it. If you just want something cute—and don’t mind holding onto it—this sloth compress will do the trick.
- Skip any food that requires excessive chewing like nuts, steak, or raw veggies until your jaw feels less sore.
- Straighten your posture, especially if you sit in the same position for long periods of time. Believe it or not, poor posture can worsen TMJ symptoms Journal of Functional Morphology and Kinesiology “TMJ Dysfunctions Systemic Implications and Postural Assessments: A Review of Recent Literature” View Source —if your head is out of line with your spine, it can place the jaw in an unnatural position. You can place a yoga block behind your spine to remind you to sit up straight.
- Try a massage or stress-soothing exercise to relax your jaw. You should immediately begin to feel a difference.
8 Exercises To Relax Your Jaw Muscles
Your jaw muscles are just like any other muscle in your body—they benefit from regular exercise. People who suffer from TMJ disorders, in particular, can use these exercises to help relax their jaw and strengthen the muscles over time. It can also bring relief to common side effects of TMDs, like tension headaches, with massages and other techniques.
And as with any exercise, consistency is key. Using resources from the Cleveland Clinic Cleveland Clinic “Stubborn TMJ Pain? Try Trigger Point Massage and Jaw Exercises” View Source and chiropractor Dr. Adam Fields, we’ve put together a list of exercises you can practice regularly or whenever you feel discomfort.
1. Chin Tuck
Stand with your back against the wall. Roll your shoulders back and puff out your chest to stand upright. Then, pull your chin down and back to give yourself a double chin. Hold this for 3–5 seconds. Repeat this a few times until you feel your jaw muscles start to relax.
This exercise has a self-explanatory name. In it, you’ll move your mouth like a fish.
To start, put your thumb under your chin. Put another finger on the temporomandibular joint, or the area right in front of and slightly below your ear. Drop your jaw either partially or completely, then close it, keeping pressure on both your chin and temporomandibular joint as you do so. This helps release tension in the jaw.
Put your thumb under your chin. Slowly open your mouth and apply pressure to your chin with your thumb to create resistance. As you close your mouth, apply resistance in the opposite direction using your jaw to push back, moving slowly. Make sure you close and open your mouth slowly, about 3–5 seconds each direction, and apply pressure. This helps strengthen your chewing muscles by adding resistance.
Touch the tip of your tongue to the roof of your mouth, keeping it behind your upper front teeth. Holding your tongue in place, open and close your mouth. Repeat this a few times to relax your mouth and jaw.
5. Occipital Lifts
Not only does this exercise help relax your jaw, it also provides relief for tension headaches. To try it, place your hands over your ears with your fingertips facing upwards. Rest your thumbs on the bones right behind your ears. These are called the suboccipital muscles, which are located below the occipital bone. Tilt your head to the right, lifting the suboccipital bone on the left and pulling down on the opposite side. Repeat this in the other direction, tilting your head to the left.
You can massage different parts of your jaw and skull for relief. To release your jaw, you’ll want to massage the masseter, the muscle on your jaw that helps you chew your food. Using your knuckles, massage around your cheekbones, working up to the cheeks until you find a tender spot, then open and close your mouth.
For help with tension headaches, you can massage the suboccipital area. Reach toward the back of your head, underneath your skull. Massage around the area, applying pressure as you go. As you work, you can tilt your head forward for additional relief. Once you’ve done this with one hand, switch to the opposite and repeat the same massage.
7. Side-to-side Exercise
Put a small, thin object between your top and bottom front teeth. This could be a tongue depressor or a ruler. Clench the object between your teeth, then move your jaw from side to side. If this feels too easy, swap it out for a thicker object, like a pencil or a few tongue depressors. The more you practice this exercise, the easier it should become.
8. Front-to-back Exercise
Grab the same object you used in the side-to-side exercise. Push your jaw forward so your bottom teeth are in front of your top teeth, then pull them back. Like with the other exercise, if this is too easy, grab an object that’s a little thicker.
If you’re experiencing chronic pain, see a doctor, acupuncturist, or physical therapist. They may be able to provide further resources, prescribe medication, or help with physical therapy to relieve your pain.
- “Temporomandibular Joint Disorders (TMD, TMJ),” WebMD (October 2021).
- “Temporomandibular Joint (TMJ) Disorders,” Cleveland Clinic (June 2021).
- “TMJ Disorders,” National Institute of Health (December 2017).
- “Why do I have tight jaw muscles? Causes and relief,” Medical News Today (June 2019).
- “Bruxism Management,” National Library of Medicine (September 2021).
- “Bruxism (teeth grinding),” Mayo Clinic (August 2017).
- “Rheumatoid arthritis affecting temporomandibular joint,” National Library of Medicine (January-March 2015).
- “Stubborn TMJ Pain? Try Trigger Point Massage and Jaw Exercises,” TMJ Exercises (August 2019).
- “TMJ Dysfunctions Systemic Implications and Postural Assessments: A Review of Recent Literature,” National Library of Medicine (September 2019).
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