The jaw is one of the busiest parts of the body. Jaw muscles work almost all the time from chewing and swallowing to talking, smiling and laughing. When these muscles are strained it causes you to to have a tight or tensed jaw. This can cause pain and discomfort in the jaw area as well as in the teeth, gums, neck, head, ears and face. A tight jaw can restrict the opening and closing of the mouth and cause clicking sounds in the jaw joint. It can also cause difficulty in chewing and yawning.
The tightness in the jaw can be experienced due to some medical or behavioural reasons and the treatment would depend on the same. Following are a few reasons that could be behind a tight jaw:
1. Mental health conditions
Stress and anxiety are the two common psychological conditions. Their symptoms can include grinding of the teeth and clenching of the jaw. You may experience these symptoms at any time of the day, even while sleeping at night, and they may lead to pain and tension in the jaw. Any jaw activity can aggravate the discomfort.
You would need to deal with the cause of your stress and anxiety to alleviate the symptoms. If you know your triggers, you should try to avoid them as much as possible. You can also try mild or moderate aerobic exercises, yoga, meditation or breathing exercises to calm your mind and body.
Rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis are the two types of arthritis that can affect the temporomandibular joint (TMJ) or jaw joint. Along with a tight jaw, people can also experience pain in and around the joint as well as bones and muscles involved in mastication (chewing).
As arthritis can cause serious damage to the bones and joints, you should consult your doctor so if you feel severe pain and discomfort. To treat arthritis, medications such as pain relievers, anti-inflammatory drugs, muscle relaxants or steroids may be prescribed. You can also ask your doctor to recommend exercises or techniques you could use to relieve your jaw pain.
Bruxism is a condition in which one grinds or clenches their teeth. This condition can occur while sleeping or during the day and can be caused by a variety of reasons including stress, misalignment of teeth and genetics. It tightens the muscles of the jaw, face and neck and can also chip away the teeth enamel and cause pain in the head and ears.
To manage severe bruxism, your dentist may prescribe a mouth guard to help reduce contact between your upper and lower teeth. This will help to eliminate jaw tightness and pain and also save the teeth from damage.
4. TMJ disorder
The temporomandibular joints (TMJ) are present in a pair near the ears and help perform the closing, opening and side to side movements of the jaws. Any dysfunctioning of the TMJ can lead to pain, tenderness, tautness, inflammation and locking; it can also produce clicking and grinding sounds. It produces tension in the surrounding muscles, making it difficult to chew.
TMJ disorder usually does not require treatment. Mild TMJ disorder can be treated with home remedies like warm compression and stretching exercises but, in chronic cases, your dentist may prescribe you a mouth guard or splint. A splint assists in the proper movement of the TMJ by reducing tension.
5. Other conditions
Some other conditions such as tetanus (bacterial infection), excessive chewing (chewing gums), malocclusion of the teeth (crooked teeth) and improper posture can also lead to tension in the jaw and tightening of the jaw muscles.
Home stretching exercises
Following are some simple stretching exercises that can help loosen the muscles to relieve pain and tension.
- Warm-up exercise: Warming up the jaw by opening the mouth wide and then closing it. Repeat this for a minute. This helps to loosen up the tense muscles.
- Jaw stretching exercise: This exercise stretches the muscles of the neck and jaw. To practice this exercise, you should place the tongue onto the roof of your mouth, just behind the upper jaw front teeth. Gently press your tongue against the roof. Then holding the position, try to open your mouth as wide as possible without any pain or discomfort. Next, slowly close your mouth. You should do at least 8 to 10 repetitions of the exercise.
- Smile stretching exercise or widest smile exercise: This exercise could help release tension from the facial and jaw muscles. Stretch your lips into as wide yet comfortable a smile as you can. Maintaining the smile, open the jaw a few inches (2 inches max), and then take a deep breath through the mouth. Finally, breathe out while coming to a normal position. You can repeat this exercise ten times.
- Manual jaw opening exercise: This exercise promotes the opening of the mouth and smooth movement of the TMJ. It is practised after warming up. Place your fingers on the top of your front four lower jaw teeth. Gently pull downward till you feel discomfort on the tight side of the jaw. Hold the position for 30 seconds before releasing it slowly. Repeat the exercise at least three times for better results.
For more information, read our article on Jaw Pain.
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