Jaw pain? It may be a TMJ issue caused by stress

Stress affects your body in many ways and sometimes you don’t even realize how it’s manifesting physically.

Were you clenching your teeth while reading that line? Stress can make you do that. Over time, that clenching may lead to problems with your teeth and jaw joints — perhaps even a TMJ disorder.

TMJ is an acronym for temporomandibular joint — the area of your body that connects your lower jawbone to your skull and assists in movements like chewing and speaking. TMJ disorders can cause pain in the jaw joint and the muscles that control its movement. A TMJ disorder may also lead to pain around the ears and frequent headaches.

A recent study revealed as many as 12 million American adults have TMJ pain. TMJ disorders are at least twice as prevalent in women as men. Unlike other chronic pain conditions, TMJ disorders are higher among younger people. 

The problems sometimes start after an injury but often have no obvious cause. However, teeth grinding and clenching, and general stress are among the reasons an issue may develop. A survey taken during the COVID-19 pandemic indicates more people may be at risk, as more than 70% of dentists report an increase in patients experiencing teeth grinding and clenching.

What can help? Simple, self-care techniques may decrease TMJ pain:

  • Learn relaxation and stress reduction techniques
  • Avoid extreme movements, like wide yawning and gum chewing
  • Use ice packs on sore jaw joints
  • Consider over-the-counter pain medications
  • Avoid hard foods

If the pain and discomfort remain, consider checking in with your dentist or primary care doctor. An initial option for evaluation is virtual dental care, which may enable you to meet with a licensed dentist by phone or video. Many UnitedHealthcare Dental plans include two virtual dental visits at no additional cost per plan year, including waived deductibles and copays, for eligible members enrolled in fully insured, employer-sponsored plans.*

Following the virtual consultation, you may be asked to do an in-person visit with your dentist and, if necessary, be referred to a specialist for further care and treatment.

*Not all dental services are eligible for virtual dental care.