Updated 15 September 2015

Are you clenching your jaw?

People who are prone to stress are prime candidates for temporomandibular disorders (TMD), also known as temporomandibular joint disorders (TMJ). Here is how to reduce the tension.


When we’re stressed, angry or upset our bodies “tense up”, and we do things like pace up and down and clench our fists or jaw. We eventually slow down, unclench our fists and even fall asleep, but our jaw muscles are particularly sensitive to stress and many of us end up storing a lot of unreleased tension in our jaws. 

Jaw tension is something many people are not even aware of and can lead to jaw pain and even inflammation. People who constantly need to control their stress at work (“vasbyt” or “biting the bullet” sound familiar?) are prime candidates for temporomandibular disorders (TMD), also known as temporomandibular joint disorders (TMJ). Fortunately, once the problem is identified, there are ways to resolve the tension.  

Read: Inflammation – the unseen enemy

The temporomandibular joints

The temporomandibular joints connect the lower jaw (mandible) to the skull. These joints allow us to move our jaws up and down and side to side, so that we can do things like chew, yawn and talk. Because we perform these movements all the time, pain and inflammation caused by stress on the jaw can be quite debilitating.     

Symptoms of TMD/TMJ

According to Dr Shabier Shaboodien (Specialist Orthodontist and Dentofacial Orthopaedics) from Cape Town, symptoms of TMD may include the following:

- Limited jaw movement

- Difficult in opening the mouth

- A stuck or “locked” jaw

- Clicking, grating or popping noises from the jaw

- Pain in or around the ears and cheeks

- Headaches, and occasionally, migraine-like headaches and nausea

- Earaches, loss of hearing or ringing in the ears

- Face, neck, back and shoulder pain

- A feeling of muscle spasms

- Toothache

- Clenching and grinding of teeth

- An uncomfortable bite or “occlusion” (that is, the contact of the teeth in the upper and lower jaws as they meet during chewing or when the jaws are closed).

Causes of TMD

Dr Shaboodien further explains that disorders of the TMJ can be caused in a variety of ways, including:

- Missing teeth

- Grinding or clenching of teeth, which may link to stress

- Emotional or physical stress, and tension in the jaw muscles

- Injuries such as fractures or dislocation of the TMJ

- Degenerative diseases such as osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis

- Wrongly shaped dental fillings, crowns or bridges

In some people, the cause of their TMJ disorder is difficult to diagnose and may include several of the above factors.

In different people, TMJ disorders can cause different symptoms which may vary from mild discomfort to severe pain.  For example, pain may be sharp, searing and intermittent, or dull and constant.

How to alleviate TMD

Because they are constantly moving, it is difficult to give our jaws a decent rest to help the muscles and tendons to heal.

Relaxing and avoiding stress will, however, reduce tension in the jaw and encourage the healing process.

On their website, the TMJ Association stresses that most people with TMD have “relatively mild or periodic symptoms which may improve on their own within weeks or months with simple home therapy”.

These include eating soft foods, applying ice or moist heat, and avoiding extreme jaw movements (such as wide yawning, loud singing, and gum chewing).

They also say that experts recommend conservative, reversible treatments which don’t invade the tissues of the face, jaw, or joint or involve surgery.

“Even when TM disorders have become persistent, most patients still do not need aggressive types of treatment.”

Medications that can relieve TMD symptoms include muscle relaxants, sedatives, some antidepressants and pain relievers.

Read: Aspirin, paracetamol, caffeine, codeine and meprobamate

Other non-invasive, non-pharmaceutical treatments include “bite guards”, ice packs, exercises to strengthen jaw muscles and counselling to alleviate stress.

Examples of more invasive procedures are steroid and even Botox injections.

If pain is caused by structural issues in the joint, surgery might be necessary to repair or replace the joint.  However, the (American) National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research recommends that TMJ surgery be avoided if possible.

Watch: How to reduce tension in your jaw

Read more:

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