For some people, when they wake up in the morning and take a big yawn, they feel a dull, achy pain radiating from their chin to their ear. Or maybe it’s difficult to open and close their mouth. If this happens to you, and especially if that pain continues throughout the day, you’re probably wondering what the deal is.
In most cases, jaw soreness is caused by excessive grinding or clenching of your teeth at night, says Robert Merrill, DDS, clinical professor and residency director for oralfacial pain at the UCLA School of Dentistry. It’s kind of spooky to think about yourself snoozing peacefully on the outside and grinding away at your teeth on the inside, but these symptoms are actually pretty common. Surveys suggest that about one in four people are aware of symptoms related to jaw pain, Dr. Merrill says. “This would include some jaw muscle tenderness, clicking, or other noises during jaw movement and joint tenderness,” he says.
If you are experiencing any sort of jaw or mouth pain, mention it to your dentist so they can evaluate your mouth, Dr. Merrill says. “The main purpose of the physical examination of the jaw is to determine the source of pain,” he says. Your dentist will “palpitate the muscles and joints” to see if they can replicate the kind of pain you’re experiencing, and figure out the cause, he says. Depending on how mild your symptoms are, making a few lifestyle adjustments might be enough to ease your pain.
Usually, dentists will recommend that you limit daytime jaw activity for a period of time if you are experiencing jaw soreness, Dr. Merrill says. “This is done by softening the diet, avoiding hard or chewy foods or gum, and doing some jaw stretching exercises to stretch out the soreness of the muscles,” he says. Ahead are three common culprits for morning jaw pain.
You grind or clench your teeth.
Some people experience “nocturnal bruxism,” a condition in which you “grind, gnash, or clench” your teeth while you sleep, according to the Mayo Clinic. The grinding can be so severe that it makes a loud squeaking noise, or even wears down your tooth enamel. When you wake up, your jaw, neck, or chin might feel tired or sore, and some people will also bite the skin on the inside of their cheek, according to the Mayo Clinic. Or you might be just clenching your jaw while you sleep, which is a variant of grinding, Dr. Merrill says.
“While clenching is not associated with accelerated wear of the teeth, it can still lead to jaw discomfort or pain, and can cause fractured teeth,” he says. If you are grinding or clenching your teeth, then your dentist will usually recommend a retainer-like device that’s worn on your teeth at night to protect them from excessive grinding, Dr. Merrill says.
Clenching and grinding your teeth can often be related to stress in your life, Dr. Merrill says. Many people will clench their jaw as a coping strategy for stress or as a habit for distraction during periods of intense concentration, according to the Mayo Clinic. Anxiety, stress, anger, and frustration can all be linked to daytime bruxism, according to the Mayo Clinic. It’s easier said than done, but reducing stress can usually minimize the amount of clenching that you do during the day.
You have TMJ.
Temporomandibular joint and muscle disorders, a.k.a. TMJ, are disorders and conditions that can cause pain and discomfort in the muscles that control your jaw, according to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR). Your temporomandibular joints are on either side of your jaw (if you put your fingers in front of your ears and open your mouth, you can feel the joints move), and because they’re so mobile, there’s a lot that can go wrong, according to the NIDCR.
Usually with TMJ, you’ll feel pain in one or both of your temporomandibular joints, and an aching sensation in your mouth or jaw, according to Mayo Clinic. Lots of people also report feeling like their jaw is stiff or locked. And in some cases, you might actually hear a clicking sound when you open and close your jaw, according to the NIDCR. There are a few factors that contribute to TMJ, including genetics, arthritis, or traumatic injury, so it’s not always clear when someone has it, according to the Mayo Clinic. If you have TMJ, your doctor might tell you to take an anti-inflammatory medication for one to two weeks to decrease joint inflammation, and also try some at-home stretching or massage, Dr. Merrill says.
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