Why do I have tight jaw muscles? Causes and relief

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Tightness in the jaw can result from stress, anxiety, inflammation, or injury. Overexerting the jaw — by chewing too much, for example — can also cause muscle tightness.

The joint of the jaw, also called the temporomandibular joint (TMJ), is a ball-and-socket joint similar to that in the shoulder. The surrounding muscles control movements, such as opening and closing the mouth, chewing, and yawning.

Depending on the cause, a person may experience jaw tightness on the left, right, or both sides of the jaw. It may come on suddenly or gradually and can last for long periods. The tightness may also occur with jaw pain.

A person can often loosen the jaw muscles with exercises, stress relief techniques, or by using a mouthguard.

In this article, we look at the causes of a tight jaw and ways to relieve TMJ tightness and pain.

Stress or anxiety can cause the muscle in the jaw to tighten. Share on Pinterest
Stress or anxiety can cause the muscles in the jaw to tighten.

Stress and anxiety are common causes of muscle tension. A person may clench their jaw or grind their teeth without noticing it, when stressed, and over time this can cause the muscles to tighten up.

Stress or anxiety can also cause a person to clench their fists or lead to tension in the shoulder and neck muscles.

If anxiety or stress are getting in the way of daily life, talk to a doctor about the best treatments. Practicing natural ways to relieve stress or looking into ways to treat anxiety can help.

TMJ disorders affect the joint that connects the skull and the lower jaw, as well as the surrounding muscles.

According to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, an estimated 10 million people in the United States experience at least one TMJ disorder.

TMJ disorders can occur due to:

  • physical injury
  • grinding or clenching the teeth
  • inflammation from infections or autoimmune diseases

The symptoms of TMJ disorders vary, depending on the cause and severity of the condition and can include:

  • pain or tenderness of the jaw, ear, face, or neck
  • difficulty chewing or opening the jaw
  • a popping or clicking sound when moving the jaw
  • headaches

Read about jaw exercises for TMJ here.

Tetanus is a bacterial infection caused by the Clostridium tetani bacteria. C. tetani produces toxins that cause painful muscle contractions in the neck and jaw.

Depending on the severity of the infection, it can limit a person’s ability to open their mouth and swallow.

Fortunately, vaccines can help prevent tetanus.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provide the following vaccine recommendations based on age:

  • the DTaP vaccine for children and infants between the ages of 2 months and 6 years
  • the Tdap booster vaccine for adolescents aged 11–12 years
  • the Td vaccine every 10 years for adults
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A mouthguard can help prevent teeth grinding, a common cause of jaw tightness.

Bruxism is the medical term for unconsciously clenching or grinding the teeth. It can occur while waking or sleeping.

Chronic stress or anxiety can cause a person to inadvertently grind their teeth or clench their jaw. Certain medications and nervous system disorders can also cause bruxism.

Bruxism symptoms can include:

  • stiffness or tenderness in the jaw and the surrounding muscles
  • painful, tender, teeth
  • a popping or clicking of the temporomandibular joint
  • headaches on the sides of the head

In some cases, bruxism can cause teeth to fracture.

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic autoimmune disorder that causes inflammation in the joints. Approximately 50% of people who have RA also experience TMJ symptoms.

RA can cause the following symptoms:

  • tightness of the jaw
  • joint pain, inflammation, and stiffness
  • a low-grade fever
  • unintended weight loss
  • bumps under the skin of the joints, such as the finger knuckles and the elbow

A person can relieve tightness and pain in the jaw with the following methods:

Jaw joint stretches

Jaw joint stretches can help increase the jaw’s range of motion and reduce TMJ symptoms.

Try the following jaw stretches:

Relaxed jaw stretch

  • Rest the tip of the tongue behind the upper front teeth.
  • Lower the bottom jaw so that the lower teeth come away from the upper teeth.
  • Remember to keep the jaw muscle relaxed.

Goldfish exercise

  • Press the tongue against the roof of the mouth.
  • Place one index finger on the TMJ and the other on the chin.
  • Lower the bottom jaw as far possible.
  • Close the mouth and repeat.

Resistance mouth opening

  • Hold the tip of the chin in the right hand with the thumb resting under the chin and the index finger wrapped around the front.
  • Softly push the right hand against the jaw.
  • Slowly start to open the jaw while continuing to push against the chin.
  • Hold the position for a few seconds, then slowly close the mouth.

Dietary changes

A person who has a tight jaw may find it easier to eat soft foods. These put less pressure on the jaw, giving it time to heal.

Some soft foods to consider include:

  • apple sauce
  • tofu
  • yogurt
  • smoothies and juices

Mouthguards

A mouthguard can help relieve pressure on the jaw and prevent people from grinding or clenching their teeth.

Certain mouthguards can also help reposition a misaligned jaw joint.

Shortwave diathermy

Shortwave diathermy involves using high-frequency electromagnetic energy waves to treat pain and inflammation in the body.

Other treatments

Additional treatments for tight jaw include:

  • hot and cold compresses.
  • corticosteroid injections
  • nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as aspirin and ibuprofen
  • prescription-strength muscle relaxers or pain relievers
  • antidepressants
  • acupuncture

Learn more about heat and cold treatment here.

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An X-ray can help diagnose inflammation and structural abnormalities in the jaw.

Several health conditions can cause tightness in the jaw. A doctor or dentist will review a person’s medical history and ask about ongoing symptoms.

Imaging tests can help diagnose inflammation and structural abnormalities that can cause tightness in the jaw. Some of these tests include:

A person experiencing any of the following symptoms should consult a doctor:

  • severe pain in the jaw that worsens with movement or while chewing
  • difficulty opening the mouth or swallowing
  • headaches that interfere with daily activities

People can use the following strategies to prevent tightness and pain in the jaw:

  • reduce stress to avoid bruxism
  • avoid sticky foods that require excessive chewing, such as gum, taffy, and caramel
  • avoid hard foods that put pressure on the jaw, such as nuts, croutons, and ice chips

Tightness in the jaw muscles or joint is common. Stress, anxiety, injury, and inflammation can contribute to muscle tension and pain.

Having a tight jaw may interfere with a person’s ability to eat or speak. Choosing soft foods, performing jaw exercises, and wearing a mouthguard can help loosen a tight jaw.

Consider speaking with a doctor if symptoms get worse or interfere with daily activities.

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