Got jaw pain? A headache? Maybe even a few cracked teeth? You're not the only one.
More than half of dentists surveyed by the American Dental Association (ADA)'s Health Policy Institute are seeing an increase of patients with dental conditions often associated with stress: Teeth grinding and clenching, chipped and cracked teeth, and TMD symptoms such as jaw pain and headaches.
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"I've been in practice almost 30 years, and I've never seen anything like it," says Leila Jahangiri, DMD, professor and chair of the New York University Department of Prosthodontics in New York City. "You can see all the stresses of people's lives right now reflected in their teeth."
This isn't surprising, considering how our bodies are hardwired to cope in times of extreme anxiety, says Matthew Messina, DDS, a spokesperson for the ADA and clinic director of Ohio State Upper Arlington Dentistry in Columbus, Ohio. "When we're presented with a threat, our body releases hormones such as cortisol that create a surge of energy so we can fight or flee whatever is coming at us," he explains.
"I've been in practice almost 30 years, and I've never seen anything like it. You can see all the stresses of people's lives right now reflected in their teeth."
But while back in caveman times we might have burned off that excess steam by running from a saber-toothed tiger, today we're left with nothing to do but sit and worry.
"One way your body gets rid of this energy is through isometric muscle contractions such as clenching and grinding," Dr. Messina says.
This helps explain why all your muscles tense up when you're stressed, including the ones in your jaw.
"Your body is finding ways to use that muscle energy, which includes pushing your teeth against each other and sliding them around," Dr. Messina says.
This often happens when you're not aware of it, at night when you're otherwise sound asleep. But you can apply substantial pressure — up to 250 pounds of force, according to MSD Manual — that wears down your teeth and causes jaw pain.
"I've had patients come into my office complaining that when they wake up in the morning their jaw muscles are exhausted, as if they've been running a marathon all night," Dr. Messina says.
This problem can also be exacerbated by your posture during the day.
The nerves in your neck and shoulder muscles lead up to your temporomandibular joint (TMJ), which connects to your jawbone and skull. But the poor posture and slouching you may have now working from your bed or couch causes you to tilt your head forward, curving your spine into a "C" shape that creates tension on your jaw muscles.
"Bad posture itself won't cause you to grind your teeth, but it can lead to more irritated jaw muscles that can exacerbate pain," Dr. Messina explains.
How to Stop Grinding Your Teeth
If you suspect you're grinding your teeth at night (or you know you are during the day), there are a few lifestyle tweaks you can try to see if it solves the problem.
1. Add a Few Basic Stretches to Your Day
Close your lips without allowing your top and bottom teeth to touch. Now press your tongue against the roof of your mouth without it touching your teeth. Hold for as long as you can.
People who did this exercise for 10 minutes at least three times a day for a month significantly reduced jaw pain, according to a May 2013 study published in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science.
Another exercise to try that may help relax and stretch jaw muscles is to simply hold your mouth open for five to 10 seconds, then close it, advises Dr. Messina. Do a set of five, three times a day.
2. Try a Bit of Heat and a Self-Massage
Touch the muscles around your jaw near your ear — if they feel tense, they may be the source of jaw pain, says Jahangiri.
Apply some moist heat (think: a warm washcloth) for 10 to 15 minutes to help relax them, then follow with five minutes of a gentle massage in the area.
3. Do Some Downward-Facing Dog
While there haven't been any studies looking at yoga and jaw pain or teeth grinding specifically, yoga can help relieve the stress that's causing you to tighten your jaw muscles, points out Jahangiri.
Indeed, any relaxation method — whether it's a few yoga moves or a warm bath before bed — may help.
3 More Things to Try
If you've tried these simple steps but are still experiencing signs of teeth grinding, such as jaw pain and stiffness, earache and even headache, see your dentist.
"We want to make sure there's no other underlying cause, such as a disc problem in your jaw joint," says Dr. Messina. If there isn't, your dentist may recommend the following steps:
1. Consider physical therapy: A short course of physical therapy can teach you more extensive stretching exercises to help the muscles and joints on each side of your head get back to normal, says Dr. Messina. A physical therapist can also perform a specific type of massage, known as trigger point massage, to relax the jaw muscles causing you pain.
2. Get a nightguard: A nightguard, worn while you sleep, combats teeth grinding by holding your jaw in a slightly open position, so your jaw muscles can relax, while also providing a barrier to prevent grinding, says Jahangiri. While there are over-the-counter versions available, you're better off having one custom made in your dentist's office.
"If a nightguard doesn't fit exactly against your teeth, it's like going running in a loose pair of shoes — you'll come home with your feet covered in blisters," she explains, noting that an ill-fitting nightguard can cause similar pain in your mouth.
It's also a good idea to wear your nightguard for a few hours during the day, to prevent daytime clenching, she says.
3. Ask about medications: In severe cases, your dentist may prescribe muscle relaxants, or even Botox injections to temporarily paralyze jaw muscles. But the latter can be expensive and isn't usually covered by insurance.
- American Dental Association: HPI poll: Dentists see increase in patients’ stress-related oral health conditions
- Sleep Foundation: Tips for Coping with Bruxism or Teeth Grinding
- MSD Manual: "Teeth Grinding"
- Journal of Physical Therapy Science: "The Effect of Relaxation Exercises for the Masticator Muscles on Temporomandibular Joint Dysfunction (TMD)"
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.