The main causes of jaw clenching might be linked to stress, ear problems, or teething in young children. Misalignment of the teeth might provoke jaw clenching that leads to pain or joint problems. The exact cause of this condition is not well understood, but daytime stress could lead to grinding the teeth and clenching the jaw during sleep.
Jaw clenching, called bruxism, affects the muscles in the neck, jaw, and face, which might become painful. Earaches and headaches represent other common symptoms of this disorder. Some patients who have this condition discover it removes the enamel coating on teeth, making them sensitive to hot, cold, and sweet food and beverages. Clenching the jaw and grinding teeth might also cause temporomandibular joint disease (TMD).
TMD might become extremely painful with continued jaw clenching that puts pressure on the lower jaw joints. These joints connect to the skull in front of the ears and permit opening and closing of the mouth. Patients with TMD might hear a popping sound when they chew food or open their mouths. Pain might be present in the head or face from tightening muscles around the joint.
Clenching that leads to joint disorders might wear down cartilage and alter the alignment of the joint. In chronic cases, the jaw might become locked when it is opened or closed. TMD might also change the way teeth are aligned in the mouth, making eating difficult and painful. Mouth guards worn at night might prevent clenching and damage to teeth. Splints worn in the mouth might also keep the mouth relaxed while sleeping.
Treatment of bruxism typically involves teaching the patient to relax facial muscles during the day to ease pressure on the joints. Stretching exercises and massage might ease muscle tension and restore normal functioning. Massage might focus on trigger points, defined as small, uncomfortable bumps near the jaw that develop from tension. Reducing daily stress might also reduce the amount of clenching during sleep.
Doctors treating this disorder typically rule out other conditions with similar symptoms. Ear infections commonly cause pain near the jaw that can be addressed with medication. Dental problems might be corrected through orthodontic procedures to realign the patient’s teeth. Poor posture, especially strain on the neck from long hours in the forward position, might contribute to pain in the neck, face, or jaw from muscle strain. Working at a computer without taking breaks might provoke symptoms similar to TMD.