Jaw tension is often a sign of a sneaky prevailing stress or anxiety. Pressing our teeth together during an intense conversation or grinding them when we sleep contributes to tightness in the jaw and neck, but there are even subtler ways tension can build in these areas.
When we experience stress, the sympathetic nervous system activates to turn on our fight-or-flight response. The muscles of the face, neck, and eyes automatically grip, pulling on the occiput and the scalp. Over time, this gripping action contributes to jaw tension, headaches, and even fatigue. The fascinating part is that we do this without thinking—it happens as a response to stress triggers, which our body perceives as being bigger and more physicalized than it actually is. Though the body is simply trying to protect us from a perceived danger, the end result can often take a toll on our well-being.
The following five exercises offer relief from this built-up tension. You can supplement them by identifying personal habits that may contribute to your jaw tension in the first place—pause at different points in the day and ask yourself: Am I gripping my jaw, am I gripping my neck, and am I breathing? Within a few days (or even a few hours) of this awareness practice, you will begin to see your patterns and start to build more supportive habits instead.
It may sound counterintuitive, but I typically don't recommend stretching the muscles of the neck to ease tension. The neck requires a delicate balance of support and mobility, and many postural issues are caused by overlengthening of the neck by pulling the shoulders down. This series of movements is gentle, thoughtful, and totally doable in most spaces—do one or all on a regular basis to experience relief from jaw pain.
Lying on your back with your knees bent, draw a very slow, easy, gentle circle as though you have a pencil on your nose tracing a circle onto the ceiling. Go clockwise for a few rounds, and then switch directions to circle counterclockwise. As you're doing these circles, feel a softness under your skull and through the back of the neck. This exercise helps to bring mobility back into the neck muscles that may be locked and tight and contributing to tension and misalignment in the jaw.
Self-scalp-massage can be key to relieving jaw tension. Spreading your fingers wide, place your hands in front of your ear, right where the temple and hair meet (you can move into the hair as well). Starting slow and building up a gentle vigor, try to get the scalp to glide on the skull. Allow the movement to be as brisk as it needs to be in order to release the tension you feel under your fingertips.
Why does this feel so good? It's due to the web of fascia (a fibrous connective tissue) that comes up from the muscles of the neck, hooks over the top of the head, and attaches into the eyes and cheekbones. By vigorously activating the fascia to release built-up tension, multiple parts of the face and jaw find relaxation, space, and ease.
Gentle Lower-Jaw Press
Alignment issues can also contribute to jaw pain. Whether you're aware or not, you may have a jaw that is locked to one side. To see which side your jaw favors, allow your mouth to hang open and shift it to the right, swinging the lower teeth to outside of the upper teeth. Then move to the left and slowly, allowing your left lower teeth to shift outside of the left upper teeth. Notice if one side feels like it has a more restricted range of motion than the other. Then, using all your fingers like keys on a piano, take your own hand and press jaw very gently to that side to allow a stretch. The jaw may resist, and it may not feel intense as a stretch. That's OK—subtle movements like this still help with tension. Simply hold it toward that side, relaxing the lower jaw and gently pressing with your hand. Remember to breathe.
Targeted Jaw Massage
The masseter is a muscle that opens and closes the jaw—without it, we wouldn't be able to talk, eat, or drink. It's also one that can hold a lot of tension, so massaging it with a gentle and targeted touch can offer immediate relief. To locate it, clench your teeth and feel where it "pops"; that's your masseter. Gently press using your index and middle fingers moving up toward the cheekbone, or rub gently on a diagonal, or make gentle circles into the muscle. Stay gently connected to the body of the muscle and continue to press until you feel a release.
Mindful muscle release
Find a comfortable neutral spine. (For some of us, that means sitting at the edge of a chair or on a yoga bolster—for others, a neutral spine is more accessible from a standing position.) Make sure that the curve of the neck is neutral, arching slightly forward so the ears are moving back in space. The lips are lightly touching and the teeth are separated, with the tongue lightly touching the roof of your mouth. Begin a deep diaphragmatic breath and unlock any tension in the torso. Imagine your cheekbones lifting up to the ceiling, but keep the mouth still and closed. Then, imagine your lower jaw heaving down. By not moving your mouth during the exercise, you encourage lengthening of the muscles, which offers relief over time.
In addition to these somatic exercises, starting any kind of stress reduction practice will facilitate a calmer mind and body, which will translate to less jaw tension and grinding. Everything is interconnected in the body, down to the smallest muscle and nerve. Calming the nervous system is a crucial component of addressing jaw pain and tightness. Sitting for a few mindful breaths, meditating, journaling, taking a technology-free walk, taking a bath, going to therapy—all of these will help your release efforts.
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