How to Help Manage Jaw Clenching

April 26, 2024

How to Help Manage Jaw Clenching that May Trigger TMJ

By Dr. Cory Herman

Some medical conditions are known by multiple names, like jaw clenching, a clenched jaw, clenched jaw (TMJ), abnormal jaw closure, trismus, and bruxism.

With multiple names for the same condition this can lead to confusion. If you are in a state of chronic stress, you may likely experience muscle tension in your jaw. All too often, this leads to TMJ, which can be very painful. This article explains how to reduce or manage jaw clenching and stress through do-it-yourself exercises, tips, and when you need professional help.

Table of Contents

We will dispel some confusion by starting with key definitions and then move on to providing answers.

What is Clenched Jaw?

A “Clenched jaw” is a lay term frequently used by people to describe their jaw condition when experiencing teeth clenching or grinding. It can occur during the day or night (sleep bruxism) and is often associated with muscle tension and jaw discomfort. A clenching habit puts added pressure on the jaw including the surrounding jaw and facial muscles -particularly the temporomandibular joint.

A clenched jaw is when a person holds their jaw muscles tight. It can be:

  1. A habit.
  2. A response to stress.
  3. And can lead to symptoms of TMJ or painful bruxism.

Each of the above means you need a plan to help unclench your jaw.

Temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ or TMD) involves problems with the jaw joint and surrounding muscles; common complaints are pain, clicking, jaw locking, and restricted jaw movement.

What is Bruxism?

According to Dr. James Fricton, DDS, MS, bruxism is a movement disorder that involves the involuntary, often subconscious, and excessive grinding of teeth. Bruxism parafunctional habits are a primary cause of jaw pain, including teeth grinding, gnashing, clenching, and can also contribute to neck tensing, and shoulder bracing.

Tonic muscle activity of the masticatory muscles presents with persistent jaw clenching with unrelenting muscle contraction. Phasic muscle activity involves rhythmic contractions of the jaw musculature, observed in activities like bruxism (teeth grinding or jaw clenching). Bruxism can manifest during both sleep (sleep bruxism) and wakefulness (awake bruxism).

What is the difference between bruxism, clenched jaw, and TMJ?

They are closely related but not the same medical condition. Here’s the distinction:

  1. Clenched jaw is a more general term describing the action of tightly holding the jaw muscles, which can occur with or without teeth grinding.
  2. Bruxism specifically refers to the grinding or clenching of teeth, which can happen consciously or unconsciously during the day or night (sleep bruxism).
  3. TMJ is a condition that impacts the jaw joint itself and the surrounding muscles.

How do bruxism, clenched jaw, and TMJ relate?

TMJ can trigger bruxism and clenched jaws. The pain and discomfort of TMJ can lead to jaw muscle tension and protective clenching or grinding of teeth. Conversely, bruxism and a clenched jaw can contribute to TMJ. Excessive force and strain on the jaw joint and jaw muscles from grinding or clenching can worsen TMJ symptoms or even lead to the development of TMD.

Therefore, while they are separate oral health issues, they often overlap and can exacerbate each other. Clenching-grinding, (sleep bruxism), myofascial pain, craniomaxillofacial musculoskeletal pain, temporomandibular disorders, oro-facial pain, and the fibromyalgia/chronic fatigue spectrum disorders are linked.

Further clarification that explains clenched jaw

While bruxism can be a symptom of TMJ, it can also occur independently. So, bruxism is a type of a clenched jaw where teeth grinding or clenching is involved. However, not all instances of a clenched jaw involve bruxism. For example, someone might clamp their jaw too tightly due to a tense moment or anxiety without actually grinding their teeth.

Trismus is a term for restricted mouth opening. It may be caused by spasms of the muscles of mastication or could be the result of an infection.

Orofacial pain specialists often find that sleep disturbance, high stress and certain personality types are commonly associated with bruxism. Bruxism often affects people with nervous tension, pain, or built-up frustration. People with aggressive, hurried, or overly competitive tendencies are also more prone to jaw clenching and headaches.

What Causes Jaw Clenching?

Common causes of jaw clenching may include:

  • Stress and anxiety: Combined, these are common triggers for unconscious and conscious teeth grinding and jaw clenching.
  • Sleep disorders: A lack of sufficient sleep and sleep apnea is commonly linked to TMJ.
  • Injury: A sudden blow to the jaw joint can cause injury that causes jaw pain and stiffness.
  • Excessive chewing: Overusing your jaw muscles may cause soreness and tension. For example, regularly chew gum, pencils, and the inside of your mouth.
  • SSRIS and some antidepressants Research surfaces the surprising link between using antidepressants and jaw clenching.

To effectively manage jaw clenching, you first need to recognize its symptoms.

What Symptoms Indicate a Jaw Clenching Problem?

Common symptoms of jaw clenching:

  • The onset of jaw pain or soreness.
  • Facial pain stemming from tense jaw and facial muscles.
  • Tension headaches in the temples, forehead, or behind the eyes.
  • Aching pain in or around the ear.
  • Clicking or popping sounds in the jaw.
  • Limited jaw or mouth opening.
  • Enamel deterioration or worn-down teeth.
  • Tooth sensitivity.
  • Altered balance when standing upright.
  • A feeling of swelling of the jawline.

Does Conservative and Early Jaw Joint Treatment Help?

Yes, it is important to stop jaw clenching as early as possible.

Early and conservative treatment is the best option. While it’s normal to clench your jaw ocassionally, persistent clenching can cause severe problems. Once a jaw clenching habit forms, and if left ongoing, it is harder to break.

It’s critical to recognize that untreated muscle fatigue, jaw pain, and tension headaches can have long-lasting effects. Overstimulated brain neurons can cause even mild sensations to be perceived as pain, a condition known as ‘central sensitization.’ This is a key characteristic of chronic TMJ disorders, emphasizing the need for early intervention.

At Minnesota Head & Neck Pain Clinic we stive to avoid surgical interventions when possible. However, should surgery be indicated our providers can refer you to a surgeon for consultation so that you can better understand both non-surgical and surgical treatment options. Treatements that relax tired and tense jaw muscles are typically very effective.

“Tired, tense jaw muscles can also cause clicking and pain—even without a joint problem. The disk is held in place by ligaments, which function like rubber bands. Clenching muscles put tension on the rubber bands, and the disks can slip out of position. In the most serious cases, if months of conservative treatments have not helped, medical providers may recommend surgery to correct structural issues in the jaw that may be contributing to pain.” – Matthew Messina, DDS, a consumer adviser spokesperson for the American Dental Association and assistant professor and clinic director at Ohio State Upper Arlington Dentistry, Aching Jaw? Here’s What to Do, February 13, 2024

Can jaw clenching cause facial pain?

Yes. If you are often stressed, it can cause muscle tension and jaw clenching. It may generate teeth grinding and TMJ issues if not diagnosed and treated. Individually and collectively, they can cause facial pain. This emphasizes the importance of properly managing your stress. Life, work, and relationship stress management are especially important along with proper posture to avoid neck and facial pain.

The trigeminal nerve supplies sensation to the face. Facial nerve pain may exist when the motor nucleus that is responsible for biting and chewing improperly functions. Assessment of this nerve involves asking the patient to clench their jaw and observing their sensation of the ophthalmic, maxillary, and mandibular branches.

How many people clench their jaws?

According to Cedars-Sinai, “teeth-grinding and jaw-clenching habit is a common condition that affects up to one-third of adults in the daytime and more than 1 in 10 in their sleep.” The January 2020 Teeth Grinding: Causes, Treatments, and Consequences article, talks about helping jaw clenching patients find the best ways to manage their pain. A complete cure isn’t always possible.

What are Common Solutions to Stop Jaw Clenching?

It is best to consult a doctor or TMJ specialist. They specialize in diagnosing the underlying cause of jaw clenching and can recommend appropriate care. Their help is crucial. In the meantime, we recommend you take some steps to avoid triggering severe TMJ pain.

At-home tips that may help reduce jaw clenching symptoms:

Thankfully, mild jaw clenching issues are often resolved at home with jaw exercises or by following the tips below.

  • Try to identify your stress triggers.
  • Protect your jaw muscles from being overused.
  • When your jaw tightens, apply a warm compress for 10-15 minutes.
  • If there is swelling, icing your jaw area daily may help.
  • Eat soft, palatable foods.
  • Cut your food into smaller pieces.
  • Skip sticky or chewy food, including gum.
  • Seek to get 8 hours of quality sleep every night.
  • Aim to do 30 minutes of stress-relieving exercise most days.
  • Try stretching and lightly massaging your jaw area.
  • Ask your partner or friend to observe if you grind your teeth while sleeping.
  • Drink a sufficient amount of water every day.
  • Practice mindful jaw placement throughout the day.
  • Have some fun. Unwind with walks, music, laughing with friends, etc.

How to massage your jaw joints?

To avoid night jaw clenching, do this before bed. Or anytime when they feel sore or tense.

  • Use your fingertips to massage the hurting muscles gently.
  • Apply firm and sustained pressure to the tensest jaw area.
  • Next, work around your entire jaw and mouth region with small, circular motions.
  • Repeat if your jaw tension or pain persists.
  • Take notes of this activity to give to your pain specialist.

During the day, try chin tucks. This can be done by:

  1. Stand tall with your back straight against a wall or the back of your chair.
  2. Pull your chin inward to engage your neck muscles and create a “double chin.”
  3. Hold for 3-5 seconds before releasing.
  4. Repeat until you feel your posture and jaw alignment correcting.

If your jaw joints are sore, swollen, or inflamed, give them time to rest and recover.

How a TMJ-orofacial pain specialist can help reduce jaw clenching symptoms?

The treatment options for your jaw clenching issues are contingent upon the cause and severity. It is crucial to reiterate that early diagnosis and intervention are paramount in managing a clenched jaw and mitigating the potential for additional complications.

Our providers find that some TMJ disorders can resolve with proper treatment and management. Dr. Preetanjali Thakur, Dr. Herman, Dr. Friction, Dr. Pathamas Mittman, and all of our providers at our clinic believe that non-surgical treatment for Clenched Jaw (TMJ) is typically sufficient to improve one’s quality of life. If needed, your provider may prescribe medication to help reduce your jaw-tensing reaction to stressful stimuli.

SUMMARY: Gain Jaw Pain Relief with Our Tips to Manage Jaw Clenching

If your teeth clenching could be causing jaw pain, take action.

Our Minnesota Head & Neck Pain Clinics are a comprehensive resource for jaw pain patients. One of our world-renowned TMJ pain experts will customize your personal pain management plan. We aim to reduce jaw tension for the long term using evidence-based TMJ treatement.

Schedule a consultation to gain professional help to stop clenching your jaw. Call (763) 577-2484, (651) 332-7474 or (952) 892-6222 or Schedule A Clinic Visit


About the Author

Cory Herman DDS, MS manages the MN Head & Neck Pain Clinic and works to coordinate both simple and complex chronic pain disorder treatments including sleep apnea, TMJ, and jaw clenching diagnosis and treatment.


Our mission is to provide high-quality, effective patient care for head and neck disorders through a multispecialty, interdisciplinary approach designed to reduce pain and improve function for all our patients.

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