How to relieve tension and pain from jaw clenching or teeth grinding
What is TMD, why's it causing you problems and tips for relief from an expert
If you've been clenching your jaw more lately and are experiencing pain or discomfort in the area, you're definitely not alone. Dentists have reported seeing more patients with cracked teeth and cases of bruxism (clenching or grinding of the teeth) in the last year. So has Jules Poulin, a registered massage therapist and founder of From the Neck Up clinic in Toronto, specializing in rehabilitating temporomandibular disorder (TMD) among other things. (Full disclosure, after finding Poulin when doing research for this article, I started seeing her myself.) The temporomandibular joint connects the jawbone and skull. "We're busier than ever," says Poulin. "We're seeing more new patients every week now than we ever have."
We spoke to Poulin to find out more about jaw clenching, pain and related issues, and what you can do at home to help relieve tension or stress in the area.
The causes and symptoms of TMD
The uptick in cases noted above has been attributed in part to a general increase in stress over the last year. "It's a tricky one because you can't really measure stress like you could if you were a runner, right?" says Poulin. "If you're a runner, if your gait is off, then you might develop shin splints." She notes how the relationship between stress and clenching could be the result of an intermediary practice, like poor posture. "When someone is a little bit stressed, we tend to hunch a little bit more, which then causes some low-level clenching," says Poulin. "Whether they're focusing or whether they're just really stressed, the reaction is just [to] hold the jaw in a tightened position."
According to HealthLink BC, while individual cases will vary, things like muscle tension, stress, clenching and grinding teeth can all contribute to TMD problems.
Poulin notes that people may experience localized tension in their cheeks or at the joint and adds that headaches in the temple are a common symptom. "Clicking and popping of the jaw is another one of them," she says. "Inability to open the mouth wide [and] pain with chewing or yawning are common symptoms as well."
What can help
Reducing stress is one obvious way to combat the issue, but so is addressing neck issues, says Poulin. "There is a correlation between tension at the upper part of the neck and function and dysfunction in the jaw, and vice versa."
Improving your posture can also help with TMD discomfort, especially if you're working from home. "As soon as the head is forward, then the muscles of the jaw go into a mild contracted position," says Poulin. "If someone is experiencing a flare-up or some jaw pain, a more neutral position would be beneficial for their jaw."
But Poulin points to three main remedies for TMD: the use of a dentist-assigned oral appliance, manual therapy, and self-care exercises. Studies have shown for best results, you'll want to use all three components in conjunction, notes Poulin. "Someone [who is only] seen for massage, the results will be limited," she says. "[And] for the average person who only has a dental appliance, they may have intermittent flare-ups … if they aren't targeting the muscles either with self-care or with manual therapy."
At-home self-care to ease TMD discomfort
Poulin offers a variety of instructional videos online and recommends the ones focusing on the temporalis and masseter muscles as "a good introduction to self-care for [TMD]-related issues." "Both of those muscles, their primary function is to bring the jaw up," says Poulin. "If anyone clenches or grinds, that muscle goes into contraction."
Each exercise takes just a minute or two to complete. Poulin says any stretching exercises can be done three to five times daily, but she cautions against overdoing massages.
"Quite honestly, I feel like most people utilize too much pressure when they're doing self massage," she says. "And if you're too aggressive with a tissue that's injured, you risk re-injury." She recommends trying a massage no more than once every four days for five to 10 minutes and to be gentle.
Applying a heating pad or hot compress to jaw muscles can provide relief too. "[It] does a world of wonders to dissipate some of the tension that's there," says Poulin.
Truc Nguyen is a Toronto-based writer, editor and stylist. Follow her at @trucnguyen.