Stress affects your body in many different ways — and often times we don’t even realize how it manifests physically. Are you clenching your jaw while reading this? Stress may make you do this without even knowing, and it could be the root cause for your migraines or ear and neck pain.
The American Psychological Association found that millennials report experiencing more stress than any other generation. And that stress may be creating tension in their jaws, as research showed that millennials more than any other generation are the most likely to seek physical therapy to treat Temporomandibular Joint (TMJ) Disorder. But it doesn’t only affect millennials – more than 10 million Americans suffer with TMJ disorders, with women being twice as likely as men.
The TMJ connects your jawbone to your skull. When you clench or grind your teeth, the added tension can cause persistent pain in the joint and muscles that control jaw movement. Many times, discomfort is temporary.
Symptoms to look for may include:
- Pain or tenderness of your jaw and/or jaw joint area
- Sore or aching jaw muscles
- Aching pain around your ear
- Pain in the joint while chewing or opening wide
- Clicking/popping noise when you chew
- Locking of jaw
If left untreated, TMJ may lead to other long-term medical conditions like sleep disturbance and insomnia, fractured and warn-down enamel or compromised hearing due to the joint being located beneath the ears.
You may consider eating soft foods, applying a cold compress, using moist heat, and avoiding extreme jaw movements (yawning wide or yelling) and repetitive jaw habits – like gum chewing – to help alleviate mild discomfort. Practicing relaxation and stress reduction techniques, like yoga, deep breathing and meditation may also help you avoid clenching your jaw. In some cases, over-the-counter pain medication, like ibuprofen, may help provide temporary relief. In moderate to severe cases, prescription medication like muscle relaxants or anxiolytics may be needed. If people clinch or grind their teeth while sleeping, a custom-made night guard from a dentist may be an option to consider.
These self-care or preventive practices may be effective in easing symptoms or reducing the risk of long-term issues. But if the pain and discomfort remain, you may consider seeking further care from your doctor or dentist. There is still research to be done around correcting TMJ disorders, so if treatment is needed, consider choosing conservative and reversible options.