How Tension In The Jaw Can Manifest In Other Areas Of The Body
Quick jaw check: Are your teeth clenched right now? If the answer is yes, unclench them. Now, roll your shoulders back, release any tension in your neck, and take a deep breath.
If your jaw was clenched, it's likely a side effect of stress, and it's manageable. If not, this tension can lead to pain throughout the body—not just the mouth. For some insight into the main causes of jaw tension, where else the pain could manifest, and how to manage it, experts have some wisdom to share.
What causes jaw tension?
Like most symptoms, it's best not to self-diagnose jaw pain because the underlying causes can vary. "There are musculoskeletal reasons like bruxism (teeth grinding), temporomandibular joint (TMJ) and neck pain, as well as neurological reasons like headaches or migraines," integrative medicine physician Aditi Nerurkar, M.D., MPH, says. "And of course, we have to think about stress-related issues."
Before pinpointing stress as the root cause, though, it's important to rule out other, more serious, possibilities. Even if it's not a medical emergency, jaw tension can be painful, and that pain can go beyond the mouth.
Aside from the jaw, where can the pain manifest?
Tension in the jaw can interfere with chewing and may lead to pain in the jaw (as you probably deduced). Less obviously, jaw tension can also be associated with discomfort in the neck, shoulder, hips, or even lower back, says Jaclyn Fulop, P.T., board-certified physical therapist.
The musculoskeletal system is closely interconnected, so when the soft tissue from one body part gets tight, the opposite side will begin to overstretch and weaken, Fulop explains. The weaker the hips, back, neck, and shoulders become, the higher the likelihood of injury.
"The mind and the body are so intertwined," Fulop says. "If a person is dealing with the constant stresses of daily life it is likely to manifest in physical aches and pains in the body." To break it down: When the brain releases stress hormones, triggering the fight-or-flight response, heart rate and blood pressure can increase. When these two vitals go up, Fulop says the muscles will tighten.
"When muscles will stay in a contracted state and shorten, pain will eventually set in," she says. "How we treat our body through our eating habits, exercise habits, and dealing with stress will play an extremely important role in our overall health and wellness."
On top of that, living with chronic pain will begin to change how the body processes pain over time, Nerurkar says. "And long-standing chronic pain can have an impact on the mind-body connection." Managing these symptoms before they become chronic can increase the overall quality of life.
How to reduce jaw tension and its effects.
There are plenty of stretches Fulop recommends to reduce tension in the jaw, including head rotations, chin tucks, lower jaw retraction and protraction, and tongue-ups (placing the tongue on the roof of the mouth, then slowly opening and closing the jaw).
To reduce some of the stress that may be triggering it in the first place, Nerurkar recommends meditation, yoga, tai chi, acupuncture, or other proven mind-body therapies. In conjunction with integrative medicine, she suggests seeking out a doctor for conventional medicine, too. "A coordinated, multidisciplinary approach is key," she says, "and working with an expert team of doctors can help so much."
Abby Moore is an editorial operations manager at mindbodygreen. She earned a B.A. in Journalism from The University of Texas at Austin and has previously written for Tribeza magazine. She has covered topics ranging from regenerative agriculture to celebrity entrepreneurship. Moore worked on the copywriting and marketing team at Siete Family Foods before moving to New York.