How to Relax Your Jaw (And the Real Reason for Tight Jaw Muscles)

Jaw tension and pain are common complaints that affect many people worldwide. According to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, over 10 million Americans suffer from Temporomandibular Joint Disorders (TMJ). 

While the reasons for jaw tightness may vary from person to person, a dysregulated nervous system is often a root cause of stress and anxiety that leads to physical symptoms like jaw tension or pain, clenching, TMJ, etc. Therefore, it’s essential to learn ways to relax your jaw to reduce discomfort and improve your quality of life. 

In this blog post, we will explore the real reasons behind tight jaw muscles and provide practical tips and exercises to help you relieve jaw tension and find long-term relief from jaw pain.

What Causes Tight Jaw Muscles?

Several causes might cause a tight jaw muscle. Let’s discuss some of these causes below:

TMJ Disorders

TMJ disorders can cause tight jaw muscles by affecting the function of the temporomandibular joint and associated muscles, leading to pain, stiffness, and difficulty in opening and closing the mouth.

Jaw Injury

A jaw injury can cause tight jaw muscles by triggering inflammation and swelling, which can lead to stiffness and a limited range of motion in the jaw and facial muscles.

Stress/Anxiety

Stress and anxiety can cause tight jaw muscles by triggering muscle tension and inflammation, as well as leading to habits such as teeth grinding and jaw clenching that can exacerbate the tightness and discomfort of facial muscles.

Teeth Grinding and Clenching While Sleeping

Teeth grinding and clenching while sleeping can cause tight jaw muscles by overworking the jaw muscles, leading to fatigue, inflammation, and tension in the muscles, which can result in tightness and discomfort in the jaw.

Excessive Chewing

Excessive chewing can cause tight jaw muscles by overworking the muscles and upper teeth and causing fatigue and inflammation, leading to tension and discomfort in the jaw, especially if the chewing is done with poor posture or a misaligned jaw.

Tetanus

Tetanus infection can cause tight jaw muscles by inducing muscle stiffness and spasms, including in the jaw muscles, which can lead to difficulty opening and closing the mouth and tightness and discomfort in the upper and lower jaw.

Sleep Disorders (like sleep apnea)

Sleep disorders such as sleep apnea can cause tight jaw muscles by leading to chronic muscle tension and inflammation due to compromised breathing during sleep, as well as by causing teeth grinding and jaw clenching in response to oxygen deprivation, which can exacerbate the tightness and discomfort in the jaw muscles.

Certain Medications

Certain medications, such as antipsychotics, antidepressants, and muscle relaxants, can cause tight jaw muscles as a side effect, by inducing muscle stiffness and spasms, as well as by affecting the nervous system and altering the regulation of muscle tone, leading to tension and discomfort in the jaw muscles.

Arthritis

Arthritis can cause tight jaw muscles by leading to inflammation, stiffness, and pain in the temporomandibular joint (TMJ) and the surrounding muscles, which can result in limited jaw movement, tension, and discomfort in the jaw muscles.

What Are the Signs that I’ve Been Clenching My Jaw While Sleeping?

Jaw clenching while sleeping is a common problem that often goes unnoticed. Some of the signs that you may be clenching your jaw while sleeping include headaches that occur upon waking up, stiffness or discomfort in the jaw, tooth sensitivity to hot or cold food or drinks, and difficulty chewing. 

You may also experience clicking or popping sounds in the jaw joint or feel pain or tenderness in the face or neck. Additionally, teeth grinding, also known as bruxism, is a common symptom of jaw clenching during sleep.

How do I loosen tight jaw muscles? 

There are several ways to loosen tight jaw muscles. Let’s take a look at some of the most well-known methods:

Mouth Guard

A mouth guard can help to loosen tight jaw muscles by preventing teeth grinding and clenching, which is a common cause of muscle tension. Over-the-counter mouthguards are readily available, but it’s important to choose one that fits well and doesn’t cause additional discomfort. A dentist can also provide a custom-fitted mouth guard for more severe cases.

Trigger Point Massage

Trigger point massage can help release tension in the masseter muscle, which is responsible for jaw movement. This massage is typically performed by a trained professional and involves applying pressure to specific points on the upper front teeth of the muscle to release tightness and promote relaxation.

Self-Massage 

Self-massage of the jaw and neck muscles involves using your fingers to massage the area below the ears and along the jawline, working the muscles in a circular motion. This can help release tension and promote relaxation. However, it’s important to be careful and not apply too much pressure, as it can cause more harm than good.

Heat Therapy Or A Cold Compress

Heat therapy can help relax the muscles and increase blood flow, while a cold compress can reduce inflammation and numb pain. To use heat therapy, apply a warm towel or heating pad to the jaw area for 10-15 minutes. For a cold compress, wrap an ice pack or bag of frozen vegetables in a towel and hold it against the jaw area for 10-15 minutes.

Jaw Stretching And Strengthening Exercises

There’re several ways you can do this. Let’s discuss a few of these:

  1. Resisted mouth movement: Place a thumb or two fingers under your chin and slowly open your mouth against the resistance, then slowly close it while applying gentle pressure.
  2. Relax the Jaw: Take a deep breath and exhale while letting your jaw muscles relax.
  3. Manual Jaw Opening: Place your thumbs on your lower molars and gently push down as you slowly open your mouth.
  4. Jaw Joint Stretch: Open your mouth as wide as you can without causing pain, and then move your lower jaw to the right and left, holding each position for a few seconds.
  5. Goldfish Exercises: Place your tongue on the roof of your mouth and use your index fingers to apply light pressure on each side of the jaw while dropping your chin.
  6. Chin Tucks: Tuck your chin in towards your chest, then slowly lift it back up while keeping your jaw relaxed.
  7. Smile Stretch: Smile as widely as possible without causing discomfort, then relax your jaw and repeat.
  8. Tongue to Roof Stretch: Place your tongue on the roof of your mouth and slide it back as far as you can without causing discomfort.
  9. Side-to-Side Jaw Movement: Move your lower jaw from side to side, keeping your teeth slightly apart and your jaw relaxed.

Dietary Changes

One way to relieve tight jaw muscles is to incorporate dietary changes such as consuming soft, nutritious foods like yogurt, cottage cheese, soups, scrambled eggs, smoothies, mashed potatoes, and applesauce. This can give the jaw muscles a break, but it should be noted that this is not a permanent solution. 

Other tips

Other tips to alleviate jaw muscle tightness include avoiding chewing gum, biting your nails, and biting your upper and lower teeth and lips. It is also recommended to skip foods that require excessive chewing and to maintain good posture as poor posture can worsen TMJ symptoms.

How Do I Find Long-Term Relief from Jaw Pain?

Jaw pain can be a frustrating and debilitating condition that affects many people. Often, people may experience jaw pain as a result of grinding or clenching their teeth, also known as bruxism. However, what many people don’t realize is that a dysregulated nervous system can be the root cause of chronic stress and anxiety, which can lead to accompanying physical symptoms like jaw tension or pain, clenching, TMJ, etc.

The nervous system is responsible for regulating many of our body’s functions, including the stress response. When the nervous system is dysregulated, we may experience a heightened stress response, leading to chronic tension and anxiety in our bodies. This tension can manifest in physical symptoms such as jaw and jaw muscle pain, and clenching.

The good news is that nervous system regulation can help heal these symptoms and prevent them from returning. By learning to regulate our nervous system, we can reduce stress and anxiety in our bodies. This, in turn, can alleviate tension and relieve pain, in the jaw. To learn more about nervous system regulation and how Heal Your Nervous System can help by providing the structure and support needed to build a regulated nervous system, please click here.

Conclusion

In conclusion, jaw tension and pain are common problems that can significantly impact one’s quality of life. Understanding the various causes of tight jaw muscles, such as stress and anxiety, a dysregulated nervous system, TMJ disorders, and teeth grinding, is crucial in finding effective solutions. By incorporating practical tips and exercises into your daily routine, you can relax your jaw muscles, alleviate discomfort, and improve your overall health. Furthermore, addressing the root cause of stress and anxiety through nervous system regulation can provide long-term relief from jaw pain and related issues. By adopting a comprehensive approach to maintaining jaw health, you can foster a more comfortable life free of jaw pain and discomfort.

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Dr. Linnea Passaler

Dr. Linnea Passaler

Dr. Linnea Passaler has dedicated 20+ years to serving patients, first to a small number of individuals as a successful surgeon and then to thousands of people worldwide as the CEO of a digital health startup. After overcoming her own struggles with a dysregulated nervous system, she created Heal Your Nervous System (HYNS) to empower others in their healing journey. Her combination of neuroscience and somatic work helps those struggling with overwhelm, trauma, burnout, and anxiety to heal their dysregulated nervous systems and thrive.