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Unlocking the Harmful Effects of Jaw Clenching: Understanding the Impact on Dental Health

7 min read
by Dylan Hao |

Do you clench your jaw when you’re stressed or irritated? You’re not the only one! It’s a common unconscious behavior many of us have, but it’s not healthy for the muscles and teeth involved.

Chronic clenching and grinding isn’t just a response to your emotions when you’re awake, though. When you exhibit those behaviors in your sleep or under stress, you may have a condition called bruxism.

Here, we’ll get real about why jaw clenching is so dangerous to your health — and how you can manage your unique bruxism behaviors.

What Happens to Your Body When You Clench and Grind?

Go ahead and clench your jaw for a couple of seconds. Pay attention to the parts of your body that you notice in action while you do this.

You will likely notice jaw movement and neck tension. But what you might not realize is that there are three major muscle groups involved in this motion. These are called the masticatory muscles, and they do much more than you might think.

Why Your Muscles Hurt When You Clench

Without turning this into an anatomy lesson, let’s walk through the basics of those muscles, their role in clenching, and why you hurt in “random” places.

The temporalis and masseter muscles work hard when you open and close your jaw. Side-to-side movements are all thanks to the handy lateral pterygoid muscles. And then you have the accessory muscles connected to those, which include the neck through the shoulders.

Why Your Random Pain Might Be Related to Clenching

If you overwork one muscle group before it has a chance to rest, the impact will spread to that network of interconnected tissues. For example, if you’re a chronic gum chewer and your neck starts hurting for “no reason,” it could be caused by that gum-chewing habit. 

The same idea applies when you engage in behaviors like:

  • Leaning with your chin on your palm
  • Chewing ice or other hard items
  • Talking a lot

But if you’re grinding and clenching because of sleep bruxism, your exhausted and overworked masticatory and accessory muscles don’t get any much-needed time off. That can lead to some painfully dangerous consequences.

The Negative Effects of Jaw Clenching and Grinding

young woman contemplating her jaw clenching causes

When all these body parts work together on an everyday basis, they have time to recover from use. However, those muscles become overworked when you’re clenching and grinding for hours at a time and aren’t alert enough to control the pressure.

So, how do you know if your accessory muscle pain is an effect of jaw clenching?

Here are some of the most common side effects:

  • Wear and tear on the enamel causing teeth sensitivity
  • Swollen and bleeding gums
  • Damage to dental restorations
  • Ear pain, pressure, or ringing
  • Feelings of tiredness throughout the day
  • Morning headaches
  • Shoulder and/or neck pain

The adverse effects of jaw clenching don’t stop there, though. Those annoying or painful symptoms can lead to serious health conditions if left untreated.

Long-term behaviors like clenching from bruxism are linked to mental and physical issues, including Parkson’s disease, sleep apnea, gastroesophageal reflux disorder (GERD), and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

But how can you stop something you don’t realize you’re doing?

To do that, you must get to the root of the matter and figure out what’s causing your jaw to keep clenching!

The Causes of Jaw Clenching

There are various ways you can reduce the damage caused by clenching. The go-to method is to wear a night guard when you’re sleeping, like those we make here at JS Dental Lab

At-home treatments will primarily prevent further wear and tear and overuse of the muscles when you’re using them, but they won’t stop involuntary muscle movements.

When it comes to jaw clenching and bruxism, stopping these behaviors means getting into your head (figuratively) and determining what’s going on below the surface.

In general, there are four typical reasons for your body to engage in this chronic behavior: 


Everyone handles stress and anxiety differently. In fact, you may think you’re dealing with the pressures of life just fine, but underneath the surface, your body says otherwise. 

When stress and anxiety get a little too much, they often show up as jaw tension. Stress is the most common reason for bruxism. 

Signs that you might be using your jaw muscles to relieve stress include:

  • Pain in your jaw or teeth
  • Earaches and facial muscle pain
  • Catching yourself clenching or holding your jaw to the side or forward
  • Picking up the addictive habit of biting hard objects

These are all warning signs that your mental health is mixing with your physical behaviors, and your jaw is paying the price.

Talk to your doctor or a mental health counselor to find ways to reduce stress and anxiety naturally. While you find strategies that work, use a night guard to prevent further damage.

Read more: Can a Bite Guard Help TMJ?

Sleep Disorders

Bruxism, by definition, is a sleep-related movement disorder. But your risk of bruxing and jaw clenching increases when you have other sleep disorders, such as snoring and sleep apnea.

Occasional snoring happens to all of us, especially when we’re overtired. 

However, if you’re snoring frequently and loudly, wake up feeling tired instead of refreshed, and have other symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), you should see your doctor immediately.

This condition causes your airway to close, forcing you to stop breathing for short periods while sleeping.

OSA and jaw clenching are often linked together. Untreated sleep apnea is attributed to various dangerous and deadly conditions, including:

  • High blood pressure
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Diabetes
  • Stroke 

Your doctor will examine you and run some tests to diagnose the severity of your OSA. If it’s moderate to severe, they may suggest a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine while sleeping to keep your airway open or a custom-fit oral appliance designed to hold your jaw and tongue in place.

Certain Lifestyle Habits 

Our habits have a compound effect on our health. Whether that’s a good or bad thing depends on the habit.

For those who use tobacco, alcohol, caffeine, and certain drugs regularly, those lifestyle choices make you more prone to jaw clenching.

Tobacco use increases your risk of jaw disorders, regardless of how you get your nicotine fix. If you have a TMJ disorder, you’ll likely have more pain than if you didn’t use tobacco.

While alcohol is technically a depressant, drinking before bedtime interferes with your sleep cycle. It alters the neurotransmitters that trigger your muscles, telling your jaw to grind. Drinking alcohol also contributes to dehydration, another common cause of grinding.

Caffeine, illicit drugs, and psychiatric medications like antidepressants are stimulants. If you don’t get them all out of your system before you go to sleep, your brain will use those clenching motions to release the stimulating ingredients.


What if you don’t have bad habits, you’re not stressed, you don’t have sleep disorders, and you’re not taking any stimulating medications? 

Well, you may be prone to jaw clenching simply because it’s in your genes.

In a combination of research studies on the causes of teeth grinding, nine out of the ten results attributed a 50% link between bruxers and those who have a direct family member who grinds.

Genetics increase your risk of grinding naturally. Combine that with any of the other causes of bruxing you have, and you’re probably clenching your jaw more than you realize. 

Talk to your doctor if your clenching is causing significant pain and messing with your quality of life. For those still in the mild-to-moderate stage of jaw-clenching effects, you may benefit from some natural or at-home treatments.

Treatments for Jaw Clenching

Whatever the cause of your jaw pain, we understand that you’re ready to eliminate it!

There are a few treatment options for jaw and teeth clenching that you can do yourself or with a healthcare provider’s guidance.


Since stress is a major cause of bruxism, start by looking into suggestions of relaxation techniques that work with your personality type.

Depending on your interests and schedule, these could include:

  • Journaling to release stressful thoughts causing muscle tension and sleepless nights
  • Exercising to release those extra stress hormones and boost happy ones instead (endorphins)
  • Mindfulness through yoga or meditation

These stress management techniques are great for overall wellness and can reduce stress.

Sleep Disorder Treatment

man sleeping with a sleep apnea machine (cpap)

Serious sleep disorders should be monitored by your medical provider. Depending on the severity of your condition, they may suggest treatments like biofeedback or jaw stabilizers to keep your airway open.

Changing Your Lifestyle Habits

Changing negative habits, like using tobacco and alcohol, may take some time, but the overall improvement is worth it!

However, chemicals aren’t the only things you might need to quit to help your jaw clenching. Any habits that cause jaw joint dysfunction and damage to your oral health, including chewing gum, biting pens or fingernails, and opening items with your teeth, must stop to avoid that sore jaw.

Using a JS Dental Lab Night Guard 

While you’re working on reducing whatever is causing your clenching, a custom-fit night guard can prevent further damage to your:

  • Teeth enamel
  • Fillings
  • Masticatory muscles

A night guard is a type of dentistry mouth guard used for sleep bruxers to prevent the upper and lower teeth from touching. This lack of contact removes pressure from the jaw muscles and reduces discomfort from bruxism and temporomandibular joint disorders. 

The important thing to note is that you should always use a high-quality, custom-designed night guard like those we offer at JS Dental Lab. Using an oral appliance that does not fit right can cause soft tissue discomfort or force your teeth to shift and create more problems in the long run.


Constant jaw clenching is a habit many of us have picked up over the years, but it’s not healthy. Whatever is making you subconsciously clench those masticatory muscles is impacting the rest of your body, too.

While you figure out how to stop these behaviors, JS Dental Lab is here to design your custom-fit night guard that will prevent further damage to your oral health. 

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