When your jaw is sore, it makes even the simplest tasks, like chewing and talking, a hassle. Consistent sore jaws might come from a toothache, or it could be a sign that your muscles need relaxation.
The jaw muscles are one of the most overworked and undervalued parts of the body. We use them every time we open our mouths. And if you have bruxism or other sleep-related disorders, you keep working your jaw all night, clenching and grinding.
Understanding the Jaw System
The jawbone, or mandible, and your skull connect together via the temporomandibular joints (TMJ). These sit in front of the ears and function to move your mouth.
The jaw system includes the teeth and gums, and any problems there can impact the jaw muscles, TMJ, and everything connected to it. When your jaw is sore, and it’s not a dental issue, loosening the jaw muscles might solve the problem.
But short of staying silent and not eating all day, it’s hard to give these overused tissues a chance to heal. Instead of playing the quiet game, try these techniques to help loosen the jaw muscles and reduce your discomfort.
1. Exercise the Jaws
It sounds contradictory, but exercise might help loosen your jaw muscles — if it’s done right.
Part of the reason those muscles are sore is that they’re tightly wound. Purposeful repetition of small movements will slowly loosen the tissue.
Start by opening and closing your mouth about one-inch, multiple times. You may feel the popping and cracking that tells you your TMJ isn’t quite in alignment. If this is too painful, a visit with the TMJ specialist may be in order.
Next, place your fingers in your mouth over the top of your front bottom teeth. Pull down gently until you notice the jaw muscle discomfort starting, and hold in that position for 15-30 seconds. Slowly let your jaw go back into place.
Repeat the movement three times, gradually working up to 12 reps. Follow the exercise with an ice pack to the area for 15 minutes to reduce swelling if necessary.
2. Stretch the Joint
Your TMJ is a delicate joint that goes in and out of position frequently. If it swells or moves out of place at all, you’ll notice signs like popping, clicking, and pain that extends to your neck and shoulders.
A simple jaw joint stretch helps put the joint back in place. Using your tongue, gently push the back of your top front teeth as you open and close your mouth slowly until you feel tension. Repeat three times, working your way up to ten reps.
3. Wear a Night Guard
Exercises are great, but if you’re a bruxer or you have other sleep disorders, you’re clenching and grinding in your sleep. Unconsciously, you’re overusing the jaw muscles again.
You can’t prevent something you don’t know you’re doing. So, the next step is to wear a night guard to minimize the damage.
Clenching and grinding put pressure on the jaw muscles and cause your enamel to erode. The stress extends to your neck and shoulders. Chances are, you wake up with headaches, and you’ll likely start noticing sensitivity in your teeth.
Wearing a night guard keeps your teeth from touching and getting the traction they need to grind. With consistent use, the muscles will loosen because they’re not working overnight.
If the pain continues, you may need a jaw splint. These appliances hold the mandible slightly forward so the strain on the jaw bone and muscles is reduced.
4. Apply Conservative Treatment
The exercises and night guards help relax the jaw muscles, but they don’t always make the pain go away when you need it gone. For that, you can try conservative treatments.
One quick way to get the blood flowing and reduce tightness is to massage the jaw. Open your mouth a few inches wide, then gently but firmly rub the muscles by your ears, using a circular movement. Do this multiple times each day, whether you feel discomfort at the time or not.
Still feeling pain? Use an ice pack or a moist heat pad at the area of discomfort. Keep it there for 10-15 minutes to relax the muscles and ease inflammation.
5. Use Pain Relievers
When all else fails, and you need the pain to disappear fast, try over-the-counter muscle relaxants. These non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) lessen the discomfort by reducing muscle contractions.
NSAIDs and any non-prescription medication should be used in moderation. Overusing them can cause indigestion, stomach ulcers, dizziness, drowsiness, and headaches.
But when you need relief fast and conservative treatments aren’t working, an OTC pain reliever is an alternative.
Your jaw muscles take a lot of damage before they show signs of wear, but once they do, they won’t let you ignore them. Try these five tips to get those muscles back into shape fast so you can get back to your normal eating and talking behaviors.