How to Stop Teeth Grinding & Relax Tight Jaw Muscles | American Sleep Association


Woman cringes while holding her tight jaw muscles.

Do you ever wake up with a tight jaw? You may be grinding or clenching your teeth at night. This condition, known medically as bruxism, can wear down your teeth, cause problems with your temporomandibular joint (TMJ) and provoke headaches and neck pain.

The good news is that treatment can relieve your symptoms and minimize the long-term impact of teeth grinding. It can also help you to sleep better at night. Take a look at the latest research concerning the correlation between teeth grinding and tight jaw muscles and sleep.

What is Teeth Grinding?

Bruxism is teeth grinding that you may do involuntarily during sleep. Sleep bruxism is a sleep-related movement disorder that starts in the central nervous system. People who experience nighttime teeth grinding may also experience other sleep disorders, including snoring and sleep apnea. Bruxism typically manifests as rhythmic chewing motions occurring every hour during sleep.

During teeth grinding, it’s possible to apply as much as 250 pounds of force to the teeth. This pressure can cause long-term damage not just to the teeth but also to the jaw and TMJ — the joint that acts as a hinge when you open and close your mouth.

While bruxism is most common from childhood through young adulthood, it can affect anyone. Anxiety, stress and taking antidepressants can trigger bruxism, as can alcohol or tobacco use and a family history of teeth grinding.

Symptoms of Teeth Grinding

The primary symptom of bruxism is the clenching or grinding of teeth during sleep, often loud enough to be heard by people near you. If you’re grinding your teeth, you may see the results on your teeth, with enamel wearing off to expose the interior layers of your teeth, resulting in tooth sensitivity or pain. Your teeth may also become broken, chipped, flattened or loose.

You’re also likely to feel the symptoms of teeth grinding. These may include tight jaw muscles, a jaw that doesn’t open or close completely or comfortably, or pain in your jaw, neck or face. You may also experience a headache or a pain that feels like an earache. You may find yourself biting your tongue or the inside of your cheek at night, resulting in pain.

On top of these, you’re likely to experience sleep disruption. If your bruxism seems related to co-existing sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea, your dentist or doctor may refer you to a sleep specialist.

When to See a Doctor About Your Teeth Grinding

If you’re experiencing pain in your jaw or mouth from grinding your teeth, make an appointment with either a doctor or a dentist. Bruxism can damage both your oral health and your sleep, so it’s important to address the problem as quickly as possible.

Both doctors and dentists can check to see if your bruxism is related to sleep apnea or gastroesophageal reflux disease, commonly known as GERD. If so, you may need additional tests and treatment.

Techniques for Alleviating Teeth Grinding and Tight Jaw Muscles

While children often outgrow their bruxism, many adults need treatment to alleviate pain and stop tooth damage. Management and treatment of teeth grinding takes many forms, including mouthguards and other appliances, medication, behavioral techniques, stress reduction and exercises and massage.

Mouthguards and Dental Appliances

When bruxism gets serious enough to cause tooth damage, dentists recommend mouthguards. Sometimes called dental splints, these appliances are worn during sleep to hold the jaw open, allowing jaw muscles to relax. Mouthguards cover top or bottom teeth to prevent wear and tear from grinding. Some are available over-the-counter, or dentists can custom-fit them to your mouth. People who use mouthguards typically sleep better and experience a decrease in headaches.

Another dental appliance is the mandibular advancement device, or MAD, which pushes the lower jaw forward slightly to keep airways open. Although designed to reduce snoring and mild sleep apnea, a MAD also helps with bruxism.


Medication isn’t the first choice for the treatment of bruxism because it’s not often helpful. However, in severe cases, doctors may prescribe muscle relaxants or anti-anxiety medications for a short period of time. Some health care practitioners also employ Botox injections. Botox, a medical form of the botulinum toxin, decreases the movement of facial muscles and may help people with severe cases of teeth grinding.

Stress Reduction

Stress often contributes to teeth grinding and tight jaw muscles, so stress reduction can help. If you feel your bruxism is a result of your anxiety, seek help from a therapist to learn relaxation techniques. These techniques also contribute to good sleep hygiene, and better sleep also helps reduce stress.

Exercises and Massage

Your dentist or doctor may suggest mouth exercises to loosen your jaw, relieve pain and improve your range of motion. Try closing your lips while keeping your teeth from touching, then hold your tongue against the roof of your mouth as long as you can. Another exercise for your TMJ involves opening and closing your mouth slowly while holding your TMJ. These exercises stretch the muscles involved in teeth grinding.

Physical therapists and massage therapists can also relieve muscle tension and pain through head and neck massages. Your doctor or dentist should be able to refer you to an appropriate therapist if needed.

Behavioral Tips for Coping With Teeth Grinding

You can also take some steps on your own to prevent and deal with the effects of teeth grinding. Try these steps to see if they help.

  • Soothe jaw pain with an ice pack or a hot pack.
  • Sleep on your back if you can, and avoid sleeping on your stomach.
  • Keep your hands away from your jaw while sleeping.
  • Avoid nuts, hard candies, popcorn, and other hard foods that can stress the jaw. Also, limit foods, such as hard bread and pizza crust, that can tax the jaw when chewing.
  • Change your pillow to make sure you’re getting adequate head and neck support.
  • Avoid smoking and drinking alcohol.
  • Don’t chew gum. Also, avoid chewing on things like pencils or anything else that isn’t food.

Nighttime teeth grinding and jaw clenching can be frustrating and painful, but by trying the tips above relief is possible.

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