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5 Things That Make TMJ Worse (+ Pain Relief Tips)

8 min read
by Dylan Hao |

If you deal with jaw pain regularly, you might have a TMJ issue. Short for “temporomandibular joint,” these conditions are characterized by mild to severe pain in the jaw joint and the attached muscles.

Some of the most common symptoms of TMJ include headaches, clicking and popping, dizziness, and bruxism (teeth grinding). When you have a TMJ disorder, or TMD, you understand the importance of managing it to prevent a flare-up.

Here, we’ll review 5 of the typical TMJ triggers and how you can manage the pain at home, alongside your doctor’s recommendations.

1. Teeth Grinding

Has your dentist or doctor (or Google) suggested you may have bruxism? This condition, classified by chronic teeth grinding or clenching, is frequently linked to TMJ disorders.

It’s a “What comes first, the chicken or the egg?” scenario: TMJ can cause you to clench your teeth, or chronic clenching can damage the delicate temporomandibular joint and cause a disorder. 

Both conditions affect the jaw muscles, causing inflammation, misalignment, and damage to the ligaments and tissues.

How Bruxism Makes TMJ Worse

There are two types of bruxism: awake and asleep. Most people with bruxism have the sleep version, which is more damaging. When you’re awake, it’s easier to catch yourself. 

The extra pressure on your teeth from chronic bruxing leads to enamel harm, which is often irreversible. The grinding causes the teeth to wear down, resulting in tooth sensitivity and nerve exposure. 

Because your jaw clenches for hours at a time instead of resting, your jaw muscles and the TMJ are overworked. Eventually, the TMJ is too swollen or shifts out of place and doesn’t slide back into position as easily. 

This is usually characterized by the popping and clicking you hear and feel when you open and close your mouth. Without treatment, these annoying pops and clicks become painful.

What You Can Do About This

If your TMJ trigger is caused by bruxism, figuring out the reason you’re bruxing is crucial. However, this can take some time, as many causes of teeth grinding are psychological, genetic, or sleep-related.

The most common reasons people grind their teeth include:

  • Psychosocial issues -  Such as anxiety, stress, and mood changes
  • Genetics - Children of bruxers are more likely to become bruxers, too.
  • Stimulants - Including alcohol, caffeine, smoking, and illicit drugs
  • Certain medications - Including those used to treat seizures, depression, and ADHD
  • Sleep disorders - Particularly obstructive sleep apnea (OSA)

In the meantime, as you work on the why behind your bruxing, you can reduce the TMJ triggers by using relaxation techniques to soothe your brain and body. Limit how much alcohol, caffeine, and exposure to other stimulants you have.

Talk to your doctor about having a custom-made occlusal splint designed for your needs that slides over your teeth and limits your sleep grinding and clenching. If you’re still in the early stages of TMJ and bruxing, you can do this yourself and save a lot of time and money by reaching out to a professional expert like us at JS Dental Lab.

(With our mail-order process, you can have a custom-fit night guard tailor-made to your smile for a fraction of the cost of going to the dentist.)

When the pain gets to be too much, try an over-the-counter medication or NSAID (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug). Hot and cold packs placed on the area for 15-20 minutes at a time can also make the discomfort bearable. In severe cases, a surgical procedure may be suggested to realign your jaw into the correct placement.

2. Depression and Anxiety

Aside from the correlation between depression/anxiety and bruxism, there are other ways that these two psychological disorders could be triggering your TMJ.

The results have been consistent: studies of those who are chronically stressed, depressed, or anxious show these individuals are more likely to have symptoms of TMDs than their non-afflicted counterparts.

What You Can Do About This

woman practicing yoga

What are your go-to strategies to handle the stresses of life? If you’re unsure or know what you’re doing isn’t exactly working, it’s time to find new approaches.

Bottling up your feelings is never the answer. Instead, look for healthier ways to release your emotions, such as:

  • Journaling
  • Exercise
  • Yoga
  • Meditation
  • Mental health counseling
  • Listening to upbeat music

Anything that makes you feel good, gets you laughing or moving, or is an outlet for your emotions can help reduce your depression or anxiety. Over time, this should lead to a reduction in your TMJ flare-ups.

3. Improper Posture

When you were younger, if you had an older person in your life who constantly correct your posture, and you didn’t listen … well, your TMJ issues could be from that.

Yes, proper posture matters. Your body is designed the way it is on purpose. It’s an interconnected system that ensures everything works correctly. 

Correct vs. Incorrect Posture

The word “posture” is the term used to refer to how your body is aligned. When it’s in correct form, your:

  • Head is centered over your spine
  • Shoulders are back rather than slumped forward
  • Spine is fully lengthened 

This positioning creates balance in your body, permitting the internal aspects of circulation, nerves, and other systems to function as they should. However, when your posture is out of place, it affects everything in your body, including your TMJ.

Incorrect posture puts extra pressure on the muscles, joints, and bones. The forward movement of your head brings your lower jaw with it, straining the muscles there and, eventually, changing your bite. Since your TMJ is so sensitive, this extra pressure quickly damages it, causing those flare-ups you’re trying to avoid.

What You Can Do About This

The solution to this issue is both easy and challenging — address the habits you have and fix your bad posture. 

If you’ve had poor posture for a while, it will take time to break those bad habits. Try to remind yourself throughout the day to check in on your alignment.

Your head should be over your back, not your chest. Your shoulders should be square, not rounded. If you sit for work for hours on end, try to take frequent breaks to walk, even if it’s just around the room for a minute or two. 

An orthopedist or chiropractor can help you learn the tricks you’ll need to conquer this habit change. With consistent posture adjustments, you should begin to notice less TMJ pain.

4. Jaw Overuse

Many people's TMJ symptoms are simply a result of overworked jaws. This doesn’t just have to be from bruxing (although that’s one of the top causes). It can also be from:

  • Talking a lot
  • Chewing gum
  • Jaw muscle spasms

What if those three factors don’t sound like you? The next step is to consider your eating habits.

If your favorite regular meals include sticky, hard, or chewy foods, your diet could be the culprit. Even bagels, although they’re soft, take a lot of jaw work to chew and swallow!

Why Too Much Jaw Exercise is a Problem

Think about how your legs and arms feel after a long workout, especially if you’re not used to regular exercise. Your jaw muscles are doing the same kind of “heavy lifting” to move your mouth. 

When any of your muscles don’t get a break, discomfort happens. But unlike your other muscles, which get rest throughout the day, you use your jaw all the time. If you keep overdoing it with those jaw muscles, they’ll strain and become inflamed, pushing on the TMJ and possibly even displacing it.

What You Can Do About This

If talking is a non-negotiable part of your day, common in certain jobs, you’ll need to find other ways to rest your jaw. Stick to soft foods that don’t require a lot of chewing. Eliminate gum chewing for a while, and let your muscles get some rest! 

5. Bad Habits

We talked about how poor posture, chewing gum, and eating the wrong foods can trigger your TMJ symptoms. But other even worse bad habits could be the reason behind your neck pain and joint dysfunctions:

Using Your Teeth to Open or Tear Things, Especially Hard Items

Believe it or not, some people use their teeth to open jar lids! While your teeth are harder than bone, they’re not unbreakable.

Chewing on Ice

Not only is this bad for your jaw muscles, but it can also crack and chip your teeth.

Aggressively Chewing Your Food When It’s Not Necessary

Give your jaw muscles a break when you’re eating those soft meals.

Biting Your Nails and Other Objects

close up of a woman biting her nails

It’s a hard habit to break. Yet, this behavior is the cause of thousands of cases of TMJ pain, especially in teens.

Resting Your Jaw on Your Hands

It sounds like an innocent action, but that simple resting position pushes your jaw up and shifts your TMJ. Over time, this will damage the joint.

Smoking, Using Illicit Drugs, or Drinking Excessive Alcohol

These habits don’t require you to use the jaw muscles or temporomandibular joint, but they put you at greater risk of other conditions that impact the TMJ, like bruxism. 

Quitting bad habits can be challenging, but it’s possible! There are various tips from professionals that will help you on your quest to stop the chronic pain in your jaw and surrounding muscles by changing your behaviors.

Managing Pain at Home

Your healthcare provider may recommend treatment options like dental care to fix any dentistry issues. They may also suggest conservative treatments — such as physical therapy — to address the proper, safer use of facial muscles and jaw movements.

These therapies will teach you to use smaller bites, adjust your body’s movements to relieve pressure on the jaw, and improve your overall quality of life with little changes.

While you’re at home, though, your TMJ causes pain, and you don’t have a specialist to help you through it. These home remedies can aid you in reducing or avoiding discomfort caused by the triggers we discussed:

  • Hot or cold packs help relieve pain and reduce swelling - They’re also great if you have tooth pain due to your TMD.
  • Mouth guards - Specifically custom-made occlusal guards from specialists like JS Dental Lab
  • Gentle jaw exercises and stretches to soothe the muscles - We’ve linked some examples, but it’s vital to work with your doctor to ensure you’re using the right exercises for your particular joint disorder.

You can also use over-the-counter medication or NSAIDs for pain that just won’t go away. Talk to your healthcare provider about the best options for your medical conditions. Not all OTC meds are suitable for everyone, as some can damage internal organs or interact with prescription medication.

Conclusion

Whatever your TMJ disorder looks like, once you’ve felt the effect, you never want it to flare up again. Those side effects can range from annoying to debilitating, and you don’t want to take the chance on which results you’ll get!

The good news is that by recognizing what’s triggering your TMJ symptoms, you can ensure your condition is more manageable. Follow the tips above to avoid these 5 common TMJ triggers. Invest in a night guard from JS Dental Lab, and you could be on your way to pain-free jaw movements!

Shop our night guards now!

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