Ask the Dentist: Clenching your teeth from stress can have a ripple effect on the body

Stress – and these are stressful times – can mean teeth clenching, which can lead to discomfort in the jaw and also in unexpected places, writes Lucy Stock, dentist at Gentle Care in Belfast

Clenching your teeth when you're stressed can have knock-on effects in other parts of your body
Lucy Stock

STRESS can play funny tricks on the body and end up coming out in the oddest of places. Take someone who frantically clenches their jaw when the pressures of daily life ramp up – you often see the cheek muscles tensing multiple times when they are meant to be at rest.

This repeated clamping has a ripple effect, which can result in neck pain and even parts much further afield, such as the lower back, feeling tender. Professional clenchers are also adept at overworking the delicate structures within their jaw joints.

Whether it's the facial muscles, jaw joints or teeth that suffer under the strains in clenchers, we collectively know this as temporomandibular joint dysfunction, TMD.

The ligaments and collagen disc within the jaw joint can take on a shape much like a bunched-up carpet and become trapped against the skull bone. For some, this means living with an annoying pop or not being able to open their mouth wide enough to comfortably eat a sandwich or yawn. With these limited jaw movements there comes a heavy fatigue in the facial muscles which can be tiring and wearisome on the soul.

At the moment it's difficult to get dental treatment for TMD but there are some things that you can try at home to relax the muscles and allow the joint to rest. If you are having difficulties with tightness in your face and jaw you may want to try a series of exercises. The tongue-touch exercise is where you place the tip of your tongue behind the top of your upper front teeth and keep it there while you open and close a few times, strengthening the muscles.

Another one is called the chin tuck, where you stand against a wall and tuck your chin in. Hold in this position for five minutes, then release. If you can't open that well, try holding a lollipop stick between your teeth. Then gently bring your lower jaw forward and back and then from side to side. Once this is slightly easier you can increase the number of sticks between you teeth to try and release the muscles.

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