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Am I a jaw clencher and what can I do about it?

by Heather Stone, Osteopath

Night time jaw clenching and teeth grinding, also known as “bruxism”, affects 8 percent of adults and 14 percent of children in Canada. This can have a huge impact on your body. Over time this can cause significant damage to your teeth and jaw, and also lead to pain in facial joints and muscular pain.

What is Bruxism?

Bruxism is an oral habit involving involuntary grinding or clenching of teeth in ones sleep. There are several things that can lead to bruxism such as; stress, anxiety, sleep disorders, and Temporomandibular Disorder (TMD).

A Canadian study describes bruxism as the most common oral habit with symptoms ranging from teeth grinding, pain in the temporomandibular joint, temporal headache, masseter hypertrophy, broken fillings or teeth (Lavigne et al., 2008). The forces involved are in significant excess of normal physiological biomechanics of the temporomandibular joint (Misch, 2008).

What is Temporomandibular Disorder?

The Temporomandibular Joint (TMJ) connects the lower jaw to the skull (just in front of the ear). The TMJ is comprised of muscles, blood vessels, nerves, and bones. You have two TMJs, one on each side of your jaw. Muscles involved in chewing also open and close the mouth. The jawbone, which is controlled by the TMJ rotates/hinges (opening and closing of the mouth), and slides (allows the mouth to open wider). The coordination of this allows you to talk, chew, and yawn.

Temporomandibular Disorder (TMD) is the name given for a group of symptoms that cause pain in the head, face, and jaw. These symptoms can include:

  • Headaches

  • Pain in the sinuses, face, ears (tinnitus), eyes, teeth, and neck, shoulders, and back muscles

  • Joint noises (clicking, cracking, crepitus)

  • Difficulty opening/closing jaw

  • Difficulty chewing and swallowing

  • Bruxism: Grinding teeth (worn down or cracked teeth)

How can an Osteopath help?

An Osteopath will treat the whole person. They will look at how all of your symptoms are connected and how the different parts of the body work together. If one part of your body is out of balance, it may be affecting a different part of your body.

Osteopaths usually first do a postural assessment, which will include them looking at your head, neck, and spine relations, as well as the position of the TMJ in relation to the skull, spine, and shoulders.

Once assessed, treatment may consist of the practitioner doing gentle stretches and manipulations inside of the mouth to reach some of the deeper structures. Other treatment may include creating a temporary separating the two joint surfaces between the condyle of the mandible and the base of the skull. This allows the joint to reset itself comfortably. This can bring back some movement that may have been lost from the condition.

Helpful Exercises

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, try out these nine recommended exercises from the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) and the Royal Surrey County Hospital. These can help relieve TMJ (temporomandibular joint) pain and improve your jaw joint movements. For some exercises, there are frequency recommendations. For exercises where frequency recommendations aren’t available, consider asking your doctor or dentist for guidance.

1. RELAXED JAW EXERCISE

Rest your tongue gently on the top of your mouth behind your upper front teeth. Allow your top and bottom teeth to come apart while relaxing your jaw muscles.

2. GOLDFISH EXERCISES (PARTIAL OPENING)

Place your tongue on the roof of your mouth and one finger in front of your ear where your TMJ is located. Put your middle or pointer finger on your chin. Drop your lower jaw halfway and then close. There should be mild resistance but not pain. A variation of this exercise is to place one finger on each TMJ as you drop your lower jaw halfway and closed again. Do this exercise six times in one set. You should do one set six times daily.

3. GOLDFISH EXERCISES (FULL OPENING)

Keeping your tongue on the roof of your mouth, place one finger on your TMJ and another finger on your chin. Completely drop your lower jaw and bring it backwards. For a variation of this exercise, place one finger on each TMJ as you completely drop your lower jaw and back. Do this exercise six times to complete one set. You should complete one set six times daily.

4. CHIN TUCKS

With your shoulders back and chest up, pull your chin straight back, creating a “double chin.” Hold for three seconds and repeat 10 times.

5. RESISTED OPENING OF THE MOUTH

Place your thumb under your chin. Open your mouth slowly, pushing gently against your chin for resistance. Hold for three to six seconds, and then close your mouth slowly.

6. RESISTED CLOSING OF THE MOUTH

Squeeze your chin with your index and thumb with one hand. Close your mouth as you gently place pressure on your chin. This will help strengthen the muscles that help you chew.

7. TONGUE UP

With your tongue touching the roof of your mouth, slowly open and close your mouth.

8. SIDE-TO-SIDE JAW MOVEMENT

Put a ¼ inch object, such as stacked tongue depressors, between your front teeth, and slowly move your jaw from side to side. As the exercise becomes easier, increase the thickness of the object between your teeth by stacking them one on top of each other.

9. FORWARD JAW MOVEMENT

Put a ¼ inch object between your front teeth. Move your bottom jaw forward so your bottom teeth are in front of your top teeth. As the exercise becomes easier, increase the thickness of the object between your teeth

Tyler Graves