Jaw Pain and Teeth Grinding - Don't Ignore these Signs of Stress

Jaw pain or grinding your teeth? You’re not alone.

Jaw tension or pain, as well as teeth grinding, are common in clinic at the moment. It may not be the main reason you’re seeking treatment, but tenderness around the jaw or problems with your teeth may be a manifestation of stress that you shouldn’t ignore.

Unsurprisingly, the effects of living in a pandemic have increased levels of ambient stress and anxiety for everyone. Stress and tension can become stuck in the body; shoulders, neck, temples and jaw are common places where you might be holding your stress. 

Dentists are reporting an increase in pandemic related dental problems including damaged teeth, jaw pain and teeth grinding. Your dentist may recommend a splint or guard to protect your teeth. Whilst this is important to prevent further damage, it does little to stop the grinding so strategies to address the underlying cause are essential. 

The skull and jawbone are connected by the temporomandibular joint (TMJ). Pain in this joint can be caused by inflammation or injury of the joint capsule, tension in the muscles of the jaw or face, and grinding or clenching your teeth (bruxism). Pain, clicking or locking of the joint, and difficulty chewing are common signs of temporomandibular joint dysfunction. 

The Role of Stress

Headaches and migraines, neck pain and brain fog can also originate from problems in the jaw and high levels of stress.  

Anxiety, stress and previous trauma are known to be involved in the development of jaw disorders. This study found higher levels of stress hormones in people with temporomandibular jaw dysfunction (TMD) compared with healthy participants. Women are more likely to experience TMD compared with men. 

Chronic pain is also a source of stress. Prolonged pain causes an additional load on the body, which activates the stress response system, causing more stress. In this way, jaw tension and teeth grinding can form an anxiety – tension – pain – anxiety loop that can be difficult to break. 

It is also important to emphasise that mental and emotional stress is not the only form of stress. Even if you don’t feel stressed or anxious, your body may be showing signs of a stress response. Other sources of stress can include inflammation, food allergies or intolerances, poor sleep quality, chronic infection and exposure to toxins in the home such as mould and chemicals. Addressing these where appropriate is key in improving health outcomes. 

Acupuncture is excellent at releasing tension in the body and can help to unlock tight muscles in the jaw and neck for immediate relief. However, to promote deep healing we also need to examine and address the underlying causes of stress that are driving the tension – otherwise the problem will simply reappear. This might include a course of acupuncture treatment, lifestyle adjustments and targetted supplementation to fully shift the dynamic in your body. 

Reducing jaw pain and tension

As well as addressing the underlying causes of your jaw pain, these hacks can help to release tension in your muscles and relieve pain.

~ Be Aware of your Tongue and Teeth Position

Teeth should only be touching when you’re chewing. Try to maintain a small gap between your upper and lower teeth, at all other times. Rest your tongue on the roof of your mouth with your lips closed. By being aware of the position of your tongue, jaw and teeth, and gently correcting when necessary, you can slowly reset your resting jaw position, including during sleep. 

~ Apply a Warm Compress

The muscles of the face can become very tense and sore with TMJ and clenching. Try gently resting each side of your face on a heat pack for 15 minutes to soften the muscles and promote healthy circulation. 

~ Self Massage 

Use the tips of your fingers in a small circular motion to softly massage the muscles of your face and jaw. Stop and gently press for 10 seconds on any knots or especially tender spots. Go slowly – releasing too much too quickly can cause headaches and increased tenderness. 

Jaw pain and teeth clenching are common symptoms that many people put up with or ignore. Long term jaw tension can damage your teeth, and may be a sign of underlying stress. Acupuncture can ease stress and release localised muscle tension, bringing immediate relief to a painful jaw. Lifestyle adjustments and nutrient support can also help to shift stress patterns for long term relief.