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Causes of a Tight Jaw & Tips to Relieve the Tension

Wednesday, July 24, 2019 8:45 AM

By: Lauren McRae

Do you wake up with morning headaches, sore jaw or facial muscles? Does your jaw lock or make clicking sounds? You may have a tight jaw, which can cause pain or discomfort in your head, ears, teeth, face and neck. Depending on the severity, your pain could range from throbbing to tender—it may also get worse while chewing or yawning.

TMJ Disorders

There are several reasons why you may have a tight jaw, but first, here are the basics approved by Jonathan Pomerantz, MD, Division of Otolaryngology, Head and Neck Surgery:

Jaw 101:

Every person has two temporomandibular joints (TMJ), on either side of your jaw, just located in front of your ears. The TMJ joints act as a sliding hinge, connecting your jawbone to your skull. They allow you to open and close your mouth. 

TMJ disorders can cause pain in your jaw joint and in the muscles that control jaw movement.

According to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, approximately 10 million people in the United States experience at least one TMJ disorder, one of the most common reasons for jaw pain.

TMJ Disorders:

TMJ disorders can be caused by a number of factors, like genetics, physical injury, inflammation from infections or autoimmune diseases, and rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis.

TMJ symptoms may include pain or tenderness of your jaw or temple area, stiff or sore jaw muscles, aching facial pain, difficulty chewing or pain while chewing, pain around your ear or pain while yawning.

Teeth Grinding (Bruxism):

Habitually and unconsciously clenching or grinding your teeth (Bruxism) is another major factor of TMJ disorders. Many times this is due to being under stress or having anxiety.

Grinding can cause headaches, earaches or tightness or sensitivity in the face, neck and upper or lower jaw. It can also cause chipped or cracked teeth or sensitive or loose teeth. This condition can usually be cared for through exercises and nonsurgical treatments, but in severe cases, surgery may be necessary to correct it.

What can you do to stop grinding?

  • Cut back on foods and drinks that contain caffeine, such as sodas, chocolate and coffee.
  • Avoid alcoholic drinks. Grinding intensifies after alcohol consumption.
  • Avoid chewing gum as it allows your jaw muscles to get more used to clenching and makes you more likely to grind your teeth.
  • Train yourself not to clench or grind your teeth. If you notice you clench or grind during the day, train your jaw muscles to relax by positioning the top of your tongue between your teeth.
  • Relax your jaw muscles at night by holding a warm washcloth against your cheek in front of your earlobe.
  • Make sure to drink plenty of water, dehydration may be linked to teeth grinding.
  • Consider a mouth guard: talk to your dentist about getting a mouthguard. They’re offered at drugstores or your dentist may recommend that you have one custom made.
  • Don’t rest your chin on your hand. Don’t hold the phone between your shoulder and ear. Practice good posture to reduce neck and facial pain.

Your Bite is Off

When you have a good bite, all of your teeth will be lined up when you chew. When you have a bad bite, you may only have a few teeth that line up, and this can come in the form of an underbite or an overbite. Having an uneven bite means your jaw can’t function properly which can cause tension on the joints and muscles. Your dentist can replace missing teeth by using crowns, bridges, or braces to balance the biting surfaces of your teeth or to correct a bite problem. Braces can also fix a bite problem, and in extreme circumstances, surgery may be needed.

Impacted Wisdom Teeth

Normally people typically develop two wisdom teeth on top and two on the bottom. If they don’t have enough room in your jaw to break through your gums properly they can become trapped (aka impacted). When this happens, it can cause jaw pain and you’ll have to get a dental X-ray to see if you need them removed. Dentists can pinpoint the problem and get you on the road to recovery soon.

Rheumatoid Arthritis

This chronic autoimmune disorder causes inflammation in the joints. Approximately 50 percent of people who have Rheumatoid Arthritis experience TMJ symptoms like tightness of the jaw, joint pain, stiffness, inflammation, a low-grade fever, unintended weight loss, bumps under the skin of the joints, such as the finger knuckles and elbow.


Not as common, since there are vaccines now, but if you contract Mumps, it swells the glands on the side of your mouth that produce saliva. The pain can make it hard to move your jaw. Tetanus is another disease and bacterial infection you can get with a cut or scratch on your skin. An early sign that you may have it is jaw muscle stiffness or thickness. The spasms are often called lockjaw.