Watch Your Mouth! – Stress & TMJ

As we have been discussing stress over the past few posts, it has hopefully become more clear that stress has a wide impact on the body.  With regard to pain, our head tends to show signs of stress more than other areas. A lesser-discussed area of the body (but an important one!) that tends to be impacted by stress is the jaw.  A classic sign of stress is a clenched jaw. If this is somewhere you’re having pain, clenching tends to increase that pain. Having jaw pain can be debilitating and can make getting through the day rough.  

The jaw is technically known as the temporomandibular joint, or TMJ.  It assists us with talking, eating, and drinking. There are various types of dysfunction with the TMJ, including “lockjaw” where the TMJ is effectively unable to fully open.  For the purpose of this article, we will only be looking at pain in the jaw, which could be at rest or with movement. This article isn’t expected to help with lockjaw or painful pops/clicks in the TMJ.  

With regard to stress and the TMJ, constant clenching can lead to increased muscle tension and additional compression of the joints and teeth.  TMJ mobility depends on the position of the neck, and stress has been shown to impact our posture. As a quick demonstration of this, relax your jaw and make a mental note of how your teeth line up.  Keep your jaw relaxed while you look down. Your bottom row of teeth will move forward. Look up and they’ll move backward. If your neck muscles are tensed, you can see how this could add more tension to your TMJ.  So how do you fix the TMJ?

Tips to Manage Stress and TMJ:

  • Be mindful – Paying attention to how tense your TMJ is throughout the day can help you monitor how clenched you are so you can better relax your jaw.  Make note especially when you’re stressed! Sitting up tall and doing some deep breathing can go a long way. 
  • Massage – If your TMJ is really painful, some gentle massage to the muscles around the jaw can make a difference.  The masseter, the most pronounced muscle around the TMJ, is pretty easy to find. Place a finger or two on your cheekbone, move down about an inch, then back toward your ear about an inch.  If you apply some light pressure you can start to massage the masseter. While you apply pressure, gently open and close your jaw.  
  • Learn to use your tongue – Your tongue is a muscle with some extra nerves on it, and it has muscles attached to it, many of which impact your TMJ. If you press your tongue to the roof of your mouth, you can increase the activity of supportive muscles around the TMJ to take pressure off the masseter.  Practice holding your tongue up while opening, closing, and sliding your jaw from side to side. Bonus tip: if yawning normally hurts, remember to press your tongue up – it can help reduce pain from yawning.  
  • Keep your head high – The TMJ tends to have less pressure when the neck is in a neutral position.  If your head is normally slouching forward, the muscles on the front of your neck will be pulling your jaw down, which pulls on the masseter.  Try doing some chin tucks (picture here) every hour or so.  5-10 reps at a time with 3-5 second holds can go a long way.  

TMJ pain can be tough to deal with, and stress can compound your jaw pain.  Finding ways to manage your stress can help, but there are some simple stretches and movements you can do that make a huge difference in your symptoms.  

Got questions?  Feel limited in what you’re able to do?  The staff at Limitless Physical Therapy in Eugene, OR can show you how to discover your future without limits.  

***The above information, including text, images, and all other materials, is provided for educational purposes only, and not as a replacement or supplement to professional medical advice.  Please contact a certified healthcare professional or your primary physician for any personal concerns.

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