Your jaw hurts like crazy, but there’s not a toothache in sight. That’s because mysterious jaw pain doesn’t always have to do with your mouth — sometimes stress can be the culprit behind an uncomfortable physical symptom. And understanding why your jaw hurts when you’re anxious can help you avoid more aches and pains.
Anxiety isn’t just mental, says psychotherapist Millie Huckabee, LCPC. It can trigger a range of physical symptoms, including jaw pain, skin rashes, and fevers, to name a few. That’s because when you’re stressed, you enter fight-or-flight mode, which floods your body with hormones that will help you do something to overcome your threat, like fighting back or running away. This stress response can cause a racing heartbeat, fast breathing, sweating, and muscle tension to prepare you for action.
One hotspot for that muscle tension? Your jaw, says Huckabee. And prolonged tensing in that area can put too much pressure on your jaw joints and the muscles in your cheeks, which causes pain, says Dr. Bennett Tochukwu Amaechi, BDS, a dentist and professor of dentistry at University of Texas Health San Antonio. When you’re anxious, it’s also common to tense your shoulders and neck, which he says can also encourage painfully tight muscles in your jaw.
You might not even notice you’re tense or clenching your jaw, adds Amaechi. Just like your body kicks in to fight-or-flight mode automatically, jaw tension can be a subconscious response to stress that you don’t recognize until the aches set in afterwards — in fact, clenching your jaw or grinding your teeth often happens while you sleep. Besides the jaw pain itself, other sure signs that you’re clenching or grinding your teeth are broken teeth, tooth sensitivity, or indentations on the edges of your tongue.
In the short-term, you can deal with jaw pain by relaxing your body to relieve tense muscles, says Huckabee. Regular workouts, jaw massages, and practicing good posture can all help keep your muscles at ease. Amaechi also suggests wearing a mouthguard overnight if you tend to grind your teeth while you sleep.
But, according to Huckabee, jaw pain can persist unless you tackle it at the source: your anxiety. She recommends working out, deep breathing exercises, and a type of tension-relieving practice called progressive muscle relaxation to help calm an anxious mind and body. She also suggests therapy as a way to identify and address the sources of your stress so that jaw pain can be a thing of the past.
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Bennett Tochukwu Amaechi, BDS, MSc, PhD, MFDSRCPS (Glasg), FADI, dentist and professor of dentistry at University of Texas Health San Antonio