You may have heard your yoga teacher tell you to unclench your jaw in order to relax. Or maybe your dentist prescribed a mouth guard to prevent you from grinding your teeth. Regardless of who alerted you to your jaw clenching, it’s important to know that the incessant grinding is doing more than wearing down your teeth and making your jaw hurt — it could also be at the root of your headaches.
Jaw clenching and headaches are intrinsically linked. The primary joint in the jaw (the temporomandibular joint) is connected to the same nerve involved in setting off a migraine, says Dr. Elizabeth Leroux, a professor of neurology at the Université de Montréal. Clenching the jaw can also set off tension headaches because of inflammation or excessive tension that generates pain in the jaw and temples.
Here’s how to get a handle on your jaw clenching and ease your headache pain.
What Type of Jaw Clencher Are You?
There are two types of jaw clenching. The first, bruxism, is the excessive grinding of the teeth and/or excessive clenching of the jaw, which can lead to hypersensitive teeth, aching jaw muscles and headaches. According to research in a 2013 issue of the Journal of Oral & Facial Pain and Headache, bruxism occurs in 8 to 31 percent of the general population and is largely caused by stress.
The second, temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJD), affects the temporomandibular jaw joint. The cause is unknown, but stress, injury, pen-biting or nail-biting habits, ill-fitting dentures, rheumatoid arthritis and loose teeth can be contributing factors.
It’s important to distinguish which type of jaw clencher you are in order to understand your symptoms and choose the right type of treatment. TMJD can result in tension headaches and jaw pain, but sometimes the jaw pain alone can be mistaken for recurring tension headaches, according to a 2006 study done by the University of Buffalo’s School of Dental Medicine. It’s key for you to know what kind of pain you’re experiencing because jaw pain as a result of TMJD will not respond to tension headache treatments.
How to Unclench Your Jaw
Since chronic pain and sleeping disorders can cause jaw clenching, both of these issues should be addressed and ruled out first. Next, look at bad habits and stressors in your life. “Posture at work should be evaluated, and nail biting and gum chewing should be stopped,” says Leroux.
You need to take action to manage stress. Regular exercise is an excellent stress reliever because it releases endorphins and helps reduce excessive stress hormones — adrenaline and cortisol — that build up in our bodies over time. Another way to deal with stress is to talk about it and learn to prioritize tasks.
Clearing your mind through meditation is another method that helps reduce stress and prevent jaw clenching. “Meditation creates awareness and increases clarity,” says Isabel Lambert, a Toronto-based yoga instructor. It enables us to be more aware of when we are clenching our jaw and take steps to prevent it.
If you’re just getting started, Lambert recommends doing daily meditation for about 10 minutes before going to bed. The main focus should be maintaining slow and relaxed breathing while being aware of every part of your body.
Lastly, you can bring awareness to your jaw clenching throughout the day by pressing your middle or index finger gently but firmly into the area of pain or tension on both sides of the jaw for about 10 seconds, says Lambert. After releasing, be conscious of relaxing your jaw and make the effort to be aware of when you clench throughout the rest of the day. Over time, you will be able to get into the habit of unclenching and avoid those nasty tension headaches and migraines.
Related: How to meditate your headache away