People everywhere are feeling the stress of the pandemic, and many are feeling it in their jaws. According to a recent study, prevalence of facial and jaw pain increased by 12% since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
If you are noticing that your jaw feels sore or stiff, you may be grinding your teeth or clenching your jaw, which are common indicators of stress. These behaviors, also known as temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorders, can cause pain both in your jaw joint and the muscles that support jaw movement.
The connection between stress and TMJ disorders
Stress tends to bring tension to your muscles, and the jaw is no exception. Anxious habits, like teeth clenching and grinding (known as bruxism), may appear during times of extreme stress. The force of these actions can place significant pressure on your TMJ (jaw joint), which connects your jawbone to your skull. This strain on the joint and nearby nerves can lead to facial aches and pains.
Symptoms associated with TMJ disorders may include:
- Aching pain in and around your ear
- Difficulty chewing or pain while chewing
- Dull headaches
- Jaw pain and tenderness
- Limited range of motion when opening your mouth
Recognizing your jaw clenching and teeth grinding
If you are suffering from jaw pain, the first step in finding relief is identifying the source. Teeth grinding more commonly occurs during sleep. The most common sign of grinding is tooth wear, which may not be easy to spot on your own. But if you are grinding your teeth at night, you will likely wake up with pain including:
- Sore jaw
- Stiff neck
- Pain mimicking an earache or headache
Jaw clenching tends to happen more often while you are awake and should be easy to spot. If you find yourself clenching your teeth throughout the day, take note of when it is occurring and what you are doing at the time. See if the clenching correlates to the pain you are feeling.
Tips for relieving a tight jaw
Reducing stress is the best way to minimize jaw clenching and teeth grinding. Until that happens, there are things you can try at home to help loosen your jaw and alleviate the pain. For relief from jaw pain, try:
- Avoiding jaw overuse by eating soft foods, cutting food into small pieces and not chewing gum
- Hot or cold compresses applied directly to the jaw muscles
- Massage by opening your mouth and gently rubbing the muscles near your ears
- Pain relievers, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or over-the-counter options
- Stretching that includes head and neck stretches as well as holding your mouth open wide to stretch the jaw joint
When to seek help for jaw pain
If your jaw or facial pain is steady and unrelenting, or your bed partner can hear you grinding your teeth at night, it may be time to contact your doctor or dentist.
Your primary care physician can determine whether your medications or an underlying illness are to blame for your habits. If the culprit is indeed stress and anxiety, your doctor can refer you to a mental health specialist.
Your dentist can provide a customized mouth guard to reduce the effects of these habits. If teeth grinding goes untreated for too long, it could lead to tooth and gum damage, tooth sensitivity and increasing TMJ pain.
If you are experiencing facial and jaw pain or need help managing stress, reach out to your primary care provider.