How stress can cause jaw pain and how to relieve it

Physiotherapist Michael Chan explains how stress and anxiety can cause jaw pain.

Written by Michael Chan

I have had the privilege of being a physiotherapist since 2003. My interest in jaw rehabilitation started later in my career, when some of the dearest people in my life were complaining about pain in their face and clicking in their jaw.

Despite having already seen their GP and dentist for answers, they couldn’t find relief. I remember thinking to myself, ‘There must be a way to help.’

Access to effective treatment for jaw problems is still relatively scarce within the healthcare industry. Motivated by this, I devoted many months studying the mechanics of the jaw, from which I devised my own unique treatment methods.

Today, jaw physiotherapy makes up the largest proportion of my workload, and brings me the greatest satisfaction in my career.

The link between stress/anxiety and jaw pain

Stress may subconsciously contribute to us clenching more frequently than usual, which creates more pressure within the jaw (or temporomandibular joints). Over time, this can lead to poor control of the muscles responsible for opening and closing the mouth.

If this problem is left unchecked, our brain (which controls these muscles) can lose its ability to remember the correct position and movement of the jaw. Combined with the physical effects that stress has on our posture, as well as the muscles in the neck and shoulders, we have a concoction for catastrophe.

In all my years of treating jaw dysfunction, the greatest link my patients share is an elevated level of stress, and sometimes even anxiety.

"Pain is best treated through very gentle jaw exercises which can be done quickly and discretely at home or work."

Signs and symptoms of jaw dysfunction

For many people experiencing facial pain, the cause can go unrecognised. As a society we lack understanding of symptoms associated with the jaw, so people will often dismiss or simply accept their pain and discomfort. By the time I meet these patients, they have usually been experiencing these symptoms for many months or even years.

Some of the most common symptoms that motivate a person to Google search “jaw problems” are:

  • Clicking noises when opening and closing the mouth.
  • Episodes where the jaw becomes stuck or ‘locked’.
  • Difficulty and pain when eating certain foods, such as apples or nuts.

Often they may also experience the flow-on effects of jaw dysfunction, such as neck pain, ear pain, headaches, fear of meal times and weight loss (due to an inability to eat solid foods).

So it is important to look out for these symptoms before they progress into more advanced stages of jaw dysfunction.

Simple exercises to relieve pain

Pain is best treated through very gentle jaw exercises which can be done quickly and discretely at home or work. The exercises I teach help to retrain the muscles controlling the jaw, which over time restores the brain’s awareness of correct jaw position and movement.

Try this very simple exercise which I call a 'flutter'. Make a ‘brrrrrr’ sound, much like the sound a horse makes. This will cause your lips and cheeks to rapidly vibrate which will loosen the tight muscles in your face. If your face muscles are already tight this may take a little practice. I recommend fluttering for a few seconds and repeat as often as needed to relieve facial tension.

How to prevent jaw problems

The following tips can help prevent the onset of jaw dysfunction:

  • When sitting, avoid resting your face or chin on the palm of your hand.
  • If possible, try not to sleep with your hand directly under one side of your face.
  • Try to reduce your stress levels, and seek professional help if required.
  • Avoid chewing gum repetitively on one side.
  • Have regular check-ups with your dentist.

For more help and information

To find out more about jaw tightness and problems, speak to your trusted GP or dentist. .

Don’t ever ignore a clicking jaw! This is commonly the first sign that you may have a jaw problem developing. If you suspect you have a jaw problem, seek help as soon as possible as early intervention is key.

Written by Michael Chan

Michael is a physiotherapist with a special interest in tendon injuries, hip rehabilitation and disorders of the jaw.

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