When you are under stress, do you clinch your jaw or grit your teeth? It almost seems like a natural reaction, like when we are walking into a fierce head wind, or climbing up a hill. All our muscles tighten up to push us through a physical challenge. But if our challenge is simply the stress in our lives, gritting our teeth is likely to bring us headaches, jaw and neck pain, or severe stabbing pain in our ears.
You may even be experiencing some of this stress related pain without knowing where it is coming from. You might call your family doctor thinking you have an ear infection, and hear for the first time that you have something called TMJ (of TMD). The abbreviation TMJ, for Temporomandibular Joint Syndrome, actually stands for a variety of symptoms caused by stress between your temples and the lower part of the jaw, the mandible.
What happens when we chew on what’s bothering us.
This one little joint doesn’t get much of our attention generally, but we keep it busy all day…talking and chewing again and again. And if we try to face our stress by biting down hard, without thinking, then the muscles surrounding the jaw stay in an almost constant state of tension. We may even sleep with our jaws clinched all night. After a while, we feel the tension running up the sides of our face as a tension headache in our temples. We may also feel it as a pain in the neck. Add in poor posture, slumping over a desk or steering wheel, holding a phone between our shoulder and our ear, and this poor overworked part of our bodies can start to scream for some relief.
According to the National Institute of Health, TMJ related pain is the second most widely reported muscle pain in America, after lower back pain. And sales of over the counter pain meditation certainly seem to reinforce that data. But there are several courses of action we can take to alleviate the pain of TMJ, and help the underlying causes at the same time.
1. Ask your dentist for a mouth guard. Whether you grind your teeth at night, or simply lock your jaw shut when you sleep, sleeping with a mouth guard can be a big help for many people. Your dentist might fit one specifically for you, or recommend a generic one available through health retailers. Either way, the guard is generally a soft plastic piece that you sleep with between your teeth, to gently push your back teeth apart and give them something a little more springy to chew on. Over time, your jaw may get the idea of staying a little more relaxed, and you save your teeth from being worn down or developing stress related cracks.
2. Gently stretching your jaw. People with severe TMJ may experience pain when they open their jaws. So gently allowing your jaw to relax and fall partly open whenever you feel stressed will help it be more flexible with time. Your lips remain closed, but you can feel a small space between your top and bottom teeth. Applying heat to the sides of your face and massaging your jaw muscles is also helpful while training your jaw to loosen up.
3. Stretching and relaxing your neck. Like most body pain, TMJ doesn’t exist in isolation. The muscles of your face work along with your neck muscles, especially the big sternocleidomastoid muscle that you can feel on each side of your neck, and the smaller scalenus muscles that connect to your chest. If we tend to slouch or spend our days hunched over, these muscles can start to shorten, and pull our shoulders forward even more. The tightening of these muscles, which run up behind the ear, can cause a debilitating stabbing pain in our ears at the slightest movement.
We can relieve a lot of muscle stress by learning to be more aware of our posture, and learning to stretch these muscles back out, to relax that entire area of our face and neck. One excellent way is to use soft stretch bands, and pull them out across your chest, with your arms straight at your sides.
My favorite front neck and chest stretch is the easiest one. Lie on your back with your head at one corner of the foot of your bed. Stretch your arms out perpendicularly at your side, and simply let them hang that way for a while, off the sides of the bed. If you have a footboard on your bed and can’t do this, try lying down with pillows under both your head and your shoulder blades. Breathing deeply and doing conscious relaxation exercises helps even more. Done repeatedly, this one exercise will do a lot to combat muscle tightness and pain in your neck, ears, and head.
4. TENS Unit Stimulation. Back when I first learned about TMJ, I had to go see a specialist who attached a TENS Unit to my jaw. Now simple TENS Units are available at numerous health retailers and at specialty websites. TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) Units have become very popular for non-chemical pain relief. They usually consist of a small electrical unit, with two or four pads that you attach to your skin with a gel, and which come off again easily. The unit sends a small electrical signal which then contracts and releases muscles, to help them relax.
For TMJ, you attach one pad to each side of your jaw, and two more to the back of your neck. The stimulation causes your jaw to open and close, and eventually relax. TENS Units have shown to be very effective at relieving stress caused muscle pain for many people. Each session should only be done for 10 minutes at most.
5. Meditation and conscious relaxation. Every one of the physical methods to relieve TMJ pain can be enhanced by becoming more aware of your body, and using meditation or conscious relaxation techniques to help relieve your stress. After all, our stress causes us to tense our muscles, and our muscle pain causes us more stress. Breaking the link in our minds is as vital as easing the pain in our bodies.
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