Your Jaw Has Wide-Ranging Influence on Your Comfort
Several years ago I developed a terrible earache. I’d gone swimming a few days before, so I assumed I had gotten an ear infection. So I was taken aback when the doctor told me there was no infection; my ear pain was coming from my jaw. How could my jaw feel fine yet be causing my ear to ache?
Well, it turns out the jaw can be the source of a range of seemingly unrelated problems, including headaches, ear pain, neck and shoulder pain, and sometimes even hearing loss! When you consider that the human jaw can exert a powerful 200 pounds of force on the molars, and that many people hold chronic tension in the jaw, perhaps it’s not surprising the effects can be so wide ranging.
Common Causes of Jaw Pain and Tension
Located in front of each ear, your temporomandibular joints—TMJ for short—are used to eat, drink, talk, yawn, kiss, etc. The TMJs are complex, allowing your lower jaw to rotate and glide in a variety of directions. They are also designed to slide out of their sockets when you open your mouth wide.
While many factors contribute to jaw problems, a common culprit is simply overusing your jaw muscles and joints. This overuse is often caused by unconscious habits, such as clenching your teeth (from stress, anger or even just being cold) or grinding your teeth at night. Or you may be overworking your jaw by regularly chewing gum and eating foods that require excessive chewing (like apples, French bread or tough pieces of meat).
How Do I Know If I Hold Tension in My Jaw?
One quick way to discover if you’re holding excess tension in your jaw is to notice where your lower jaw rests when you aren’t eating or talking. Do your upper and lower teeth touch or is there space between them?
Generally, your teeth should only touch when biting and chewing (and sometimes when speaking). A jaw without tension naturally hangs open slightly when not being used, so there’s space between your teeth. This gives your TMJs and surrounding muscles a much-needed break.
A Quick Way to Free Your Jaw
Most of us think of our jaw as a hinge—the front of the mouth opens while the back stays together. But your TMJs have a sliding movement that opens space in the back of your mouth as well as the front.
Try the following experiment to enjoy more ease and freedom in your jaw, and allow space between your upper and lower molars.
Back Molar Drop Exercise
1. Open and Close Your Mouth
Gently open and close your lower jaw a handful of times. Go only a small amount—less than 50% of what you could do. Notice the quality and distance you go without effort.
2. Drop Your Rear Molars
Bring your attention to your rear molars. Slowly lower your bottom molars away from the top molars and then return to your original position. It’s a very small movement. Again, do only 50% of what’s possible for you. As you repeat this a few times, you might imagine small weights hanging from the back corners of your jaw, lengthening them down toward the floor. Let all the muscles in your face soften. Take a short rest.
3. Open Your Mouth from the Back
Now open your lower jaw, but this time, initiate from the back of your mouth (i.e. your rear molars), then the front follows. Do it a few times, making each movement smoother and easier than the previous. Rest again.
4. Return to Opening and Closing Your Mouth
Again, just open and close your lower jaw like you did in the beginning. What’s changed? Has something improved?
Repeat this little exercise anytime you want to let go of unnecessary tension and reduce pain. Or you can simply recall the idea of letting you bottom molars sink down to help release tight muscles.
To learn more about how you can improve the comfort of your jaw, neck and shoulders, please join me for a 5-week online class series starting September 1, 2020.
Educational Animation: This animation shows how the joints and muscles of the jaw work. Warning: At about 2 minutes, the video begins showing degeneration effects from misalignment and overactive muscles (my jaw hurt just hearing about these!).
Hippo Opens Wide: A just for fun, video of a hippo opening its mouth for a teeth cleaning.