Even the littlest of stressors can cause us to experience tension, which we all cope with differently. For some of us, that tension settles into our neck and shoulders. For others, worry lines. But about 20% of us suffer from carrying it in our jaw. Grinding our teeth is a trigger result of stress, and even has its own, kind of sexy name: bruxism. But the side effects are not so sexy.
Not all of us are fully grinding our teeth. Sometimes it’s more subtle, like a clenched jaw. Which, sorry to be the bearer of bad news, is still pretty bad. On top of causing jaw pain, the tension can spread, causing us to experience headaches, worn-down enamel, exposed dentin (where the canals and roots are out in the open, making teeth sensitive to temperature and texture of food), and limited range of jaw motion. Tightness in the jaw can even cause our faces to look more severe—the jaw is one of the body’s most powerful muscles, so we don’t want knots there.
Often, bruxism occurs when we are sleeping, so it may feel like it’s impossible to stop. However, even when we aren’t aware of it, we may be clenching our jaws during our waking hours as well. But, like all nasty habits, there are some good habits we can start incorporating to quit clenching, ASAP. We spoke to cosmetic dentist, Dr. Kevin Sands, and he gave us hope.
“Believe it or not, you can train yourself to not clench your teeth and jaw. If you catch yourself clenching, place your tongue between your teeth; this practice trains your jaw muscles to relax and will help decrease the clenching,” he starts. Essentially, we must bring our awareness to our jaw. That’s our new homework in the mindfulness department. Things like jaw-clenching, shallow breathing, slouching, etc., are all things that can be improved upon with a mindful approach.
Another way to deal with clenching is to manage stress. This is in no way a one-step process, and it has many layers. Dr. Sands suggests, “If you tend to grind before bed, try meditation and deep breathing before falling asleep.” We can also try taking relaxing herbs throughout the day and before bed, like rhodiola, oat straw, and reishi. They won’t knock us out, but of course, that’s not the problem. They will lend our nervous system some calm, though, with regular use.
Caffeine can trigger stress, so if you’re already an anxious person, the last thing you need is to get hopped up. If you are someone who absolutely feels you cannot function without it, try cutting yourself off before noon to see if that helps you ease down on the clenching, at least before bed. Of course, the best bet is going cold turkey, since a lot of jaw-clenching can occur during the day.
Grinding and clenching have been known to intensify after alcohol consumption, so try and wean yourself off the juice as many times a week as possible.
Relax jaw muscles by applying a warm washcloth to the jaw any time of day, or before bed. Massage the warm muscles, and as Dr. Sands suggested, put your tongue between your teeth afterward to force your jaw to relax and continue with the conditioning.
Of course, in any case and especially extreme ones, Dr. Sands says, “The best long-term treatment will be to see your dentist for a custom-fitted occlusal guard.” An occlusal guard is a type of nighttime mouth guard made of smooth, thin plastic that is fitted over your teeth. It will protect your teeth, but also make it less comfortable to attempt grinding as the goal is to eventually stop completely.
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