If you’re noticing pain or tightness in your jaw, are struggling to open your mouth wide, or commonly experience “temple” headaches, it may be caused by excessive jaw clenching.
In this article, we explore the symptoms of jaw clenching, how it relates to teeth grinding (known as bruxism), what causes the issue, and offer some home and professional remedies to give you relief.
What is jaw clenching?
Jaw clenching is an excessive clenching of your jaws, which can be accompanied by teeth grinding. This may happen at night, during the day, or both, and lead to pain and tightness in your jaw, damaged teeth, and facial disorders like TMJ or TMD.
People who clench their jaw excessively may not necessarily grind their teeth, but the two often go hand in hand.
Jaw clenching symptoms
Excessive jaw clenching can be a difficult thing to identify, especially if it’s happening at night when you’re asleep. But there’s some telltale jaw clenching symptoms that will help you diagnose the problem. The most obvious of these is having jaw pain, usually accompanied by a feeling of tightness. If you experience this when you wake up in the morning, there’s a good chance you’ve been clenching your jaw and grinding your teeth during the night. If you sleep with a partner, they may also hear your teeth grinding at night.
People who clench their jaws may also have difficulty opening their mouths wide, due to the tightness and pain caused by excessive clenching. This can lead to headaches (particularly those that start in the temples) as well as earaches. If you grind your teeth at night, you may find that you often wake up feeling tired, in which case you should consider talking to a specialist about a potential disorder like sleep apnea (we discuss the full range of treatment options below).
Finally, the last glaring sign of excessive jaw clenching is having worn or loose teeth, or broken fillings. Although this is usually a severe case, and should be addressed immediately to prevent further damage to your precious teeth.
Jaw clenching causes
Jaw clenching is usually caused by emotional issues like stress and anxiety. Muscle tension is a common symptom of these emotions, which can include a consistent clenching of your jaw, leading to some of the issues described above.
For bruxism, misaligned teeth are another common cause, because they can rub together more easily.
Other potential causes for jaw clenching (or things that can make it worse) include:
- Clenching your teeth when focusing on something difficult. This can quickly form into a bad habit.
- Taking stimulating drugs like ecstasy and amphetamine, or cocaine to a lesser extent.
- Other illnesses or disorders like sleep apnea, ADHD, Parkinson’s disease, gastroesophageal reflux disorder (GERD), epilepsy, and night terrors.
- Drinking alcohol. This can trigger your jaw muscles to hyperactivate, leading to teeth nighttime grinding.
- Smoking. In one study, young heavy smokers were more than twice as likely to experience bruxism1.
- Nutritional deficiencies such as a lack of vitamin D and calcium2.
- SSRI antidepressants
Jaw clenching is most common in children, adolescents, and young adults, but tends to go away when getting older. It might also be found more commonly in people who have an aggressive, hyperactive, or competitive personality type.
How to stop clenching your jaw—home remedies
There’s a few home remedies on how to stop clenching your jaw, but their effectiveness will depend on the cause of your jaw clenching. If you suspect it’s caused by being overly stressed or anxious, it’s best to incorporate some relaxing routines into your life, like meditation, reading, listening to soothing music, and getting regular massages. If possible, you should also consider fixing the source of the stress itself.
If you clench your jaw at night, focusing on your sleep hygiene can help a lot. There’s plenty you can do to get a better night’s rest, including:
- Drinking less caffeine during the day (particularly after 2 pm), or cutting it out completely.
- Getting more aerobic exercise during the day.
- Getting between 30 to 60 minutes of direct sunlight each day in order to encourage a healthy circadian rhythm. This works best between the hours of 6 am and 9 am3. Be sure to use sunscreen to protect against skin cancer.
- Avoid your screens like your phone and television two hours before going to bed. These devices emit blue light, which your brain identifies as sunlight, and blocks melatonin production (the hormone that regulates your circadian rhythm).
- Have a consistent sleep schedule, even on weekends.
If you catch yourself grinding during the day, you can try putting the tip of your tongue between your teeth each time. With persistence, a habit will form that prevents you from clenching your jaw.
Jaw clenching treatment—professional remedies
Your first port of call with jaw clenching is a visit to the dentist. By assessing damage to your teeth, they can give you some idea of how badly you clench your jaw, and whether it has led to issues like TMJ or TMD. They’ll fix any damaged teeth you may have, and also be able to provide you with a mouth guard to wear at night (if this is when the clenching usually happens). If the problem is severe enough, and the dentist has the necessary qualifications, they may even recommend botox injections to relax your jaw muscles.
The dentist may recommend that you visit a GP, to address other issues outside of their scope. A GP can get a better understanding of whether your jaw clenching is stress-related, and potentially refer you to a therapist to improve your mental health. They might also recommend a relaxation therapist to teach you how to voluntarily relax your jaw muscles, as well as a sleep specialist to improve your sleep hygiene.
Finally, the last professional treatment that can help with jaw clenching is a head and neck massage, which helps to relax the muscles in those areas and reduce any pain or tension you’re feeling.
- K. Rintakoski, D.D.S., J. Ahlberg, D.D.S., Ph.D., C. Hublin, M.D., Ph.D., F. Lobbezoo, D.D.S., Ph.D., R. J. Rose, Ph.D., H. Murtomaa, D.D.S., Ph.D., and J. Kaprio, M.D., Ph.D, Tobacco use and reported bruxism in young adults: A nationwide Finnish Twin Cohort Study, Nicotine & Tobacco Research
- Mohammad J Alkhatatbeh, Zainab L Hmoud, Khalid K Abdul-Razzak, Esam M Alem, Self-reported sleep bruxism is associated with vitamin D deficiency and low dietary calcium intake: a case-control study, BMC Oral Health
- Bright Light Therapy, Drug and Alcohol Services South Australia