Asking For A Friend: My jaw is aching and my head hurts

If you are one of the 90 per cent of people who grind or clench their teeth, there are ways to ease your pain.

Karen Hawthorne 4 minute read January 21, 2022
cartoon grinning mouth with clenched teeth on a yellow background

Prolonged clenching can do a number on your jaw and wear down your teeth. GETTY

Dear Asking For a Friend,

I guess I must be pretty stressed, since I am waking up every morning with an aching jaw. My dentist says that she doesn’t see signs of grinding, but judging from how stiff my jaw is (they even feel tired sometimes when I’m chewing food, and I am getting headaches) I am pretty sure something is going on.

Signed, Grinder

Dear Grinder,

Getting out of bed in the morning can be challenge if you’re short on quality sleep. Add in a stiff and aching jaw that you notice as soon as you wake up and it’s a sign that there’s definitely something going on in your body.

Even if your dentist has ruled out teeth grinding, where you unconsciously grind or gnash your teeth during sleep or when you’re up and about, you may still be clenching your teeth together without realizing it.

In the dental care world, both grinding and clenching actions fall under what’s called “bruxism.” And research shows that about 85 to 90 per cent of the general population grind or clench their teeth at some point during their life, although only five per cent will develop any significant problems.

I’m clenching?

Clenching is simply holding the teeth together and tightening the jaw muscles. This can mean less obvious wear to the teeth, but you can still experience jaw muscle soreness, pain, and even damage to the jaw joint.

Wendy Stewart, president of the Canadian Dental Hygienists Association, is a dental hygienist and instructor in dentistry at Dalhousie University in N.S. She has long been an advocate for the relationship between good oral health and general health.

The mouth is the entry point for your digestive and respiratory tracts, she says, which means that any harmful bacteria in your mouth can cause disease or symptoms of distress.

“Before the pandemic, I might have found two out of every 10 patients that I could see signs of wear or complaints of jaw pain, but I’ve found really it’s doubled,” Stewart says. “There are more and more patients that will say they have headaches in the morning or they’re having trouble opening their mouth to chew.”

Dental hygienists are usually first to see patients in the dental chair with their masks off, revealing enlarged muscles in the lower part of the face — the muscles that help you chew. These are located near the temporomandibular joints (TMJs) that connect your jawbone to your skull and allow you to open and close your mouth.With clenching, those muscles can become enlarged because they’ve been working overtime.

“Sometimes you’ll feel those muscles are really tense or, when we ask a patient to open and close, we’ll feel clicking and popping in the joint,” she says.

Prolonged clenching can do a number on your jaw and wear down your teeth, putting you at greater risk of tooth decay, and gum recession and sensitivity. And the jaw and tooth pain often radiates to the head and neck, so you can end up with headaches.

‘Have any stress in your life lately?’ Umm, yes?

The main trigger is stress and anxiety.

“I’ll ask the patient if they wake up with headaches and, the big one, has there been a lot of stress in your life lately?” says Stewart.

People are also spending more time on their computers, often clenching their jaws without being aware of it, which can also be common when people are driving, especially longer distances, she says.

Taking steps to relax and relieve stress is essential to easing your jaw, but is also good for your overall health. Exercise and healthy eating, getting outdoors, meditation and connecting with friends are just a few ways to get some reprieve from tension and anxiety.

And as for the more immediate physical discomfort in your jaws, Stewart recommends avoiding eating crunchy foods like raw carrots or apples that can irritate jaw pain, or chewing gum, which can also contribute to pain because of the repetitive jaw action.

A custom mouth guard can also protect your teeth from damage and leave the back of the jaw a little bit open to help the muscles relax.

If the pain persists, she also suggests seeing a massage therapist who will target the TMJ area — a technique that has been shown to significantly reduce joint pain and clicking.

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