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Can Stress Reduction Help With TMD?

Updated on February 21, 2018

Does stress cause TMD?

Stress causes a number of physiological responses. Chief among these is bruxism (teeth grinding), one of the leading risk factors for TMD. While stress itself may not be the root cause of your TMD, it can certainly be a contributing factor and one that must be considered during your course of treatment to help ensure appropriate techniques are used.

Symptoms of TMD

Bruxism, more commonly known as tooth grinding, is a common stress response. It is also one of the leading causes of temporomandibular joint disorder (TMD), a disorder marked by misalignment of the jaw joint. Symptoms of TMD may include:

  • Clicking, popping, or grinding noises when opening and shutting the jaw
  • Swelling, pain, or tenderness around the jaw joint
  • Limited jaw function or complete lockjaw

These symptoms almost certainly point to TMD, but so too might symptoms that seem completely unrelated to jaw health. Among these are:

  • Chronic headaches
  • Ear ringing or pain without the presence of infection
  • Pressure or pain in the sinuses
  • Pain or pressure behind the eyes
  • Generalized facial pain
  • Neck, shoulder, and back pain

These symptoms may appear alone or in conjunction with other TMD symptoms. If they persist for longer than a week, it is best to bring them to the attention of a trusted healthcare provider.

Symptoms of TMD are often related to the trigeminal nerve. As the largest nerve in your head, the trigeminal nerve is responsible for sensation within the jaw, soft palate, and ocular and sinus cavities. This same nerve controls motor function in the mastication muscles.

When the jaw is misaligned, pressure is placed on the trigeminal nerve. This can, in turn, result in significant and lasting discomfort. Until pressure is released, pain is likely to continue.


Bruxism is an involuntary grinding of the teeth which causes tension in the jaw and places pressure on the trigeminal nerve. This common stress response often occurs during sleep, which can make it difficult to diagnose. However, your dentist can identify telltale signs of this harmful disorder with relative ease.

Symptoms of bruxism include:

  • Uneven or irregular tooth wear
  • Brittle or soft tooth enamel
  • Chipped, cracked, or broken teeth
  • Certain TMD symptoms

Bruxism may also occur while you are awake. Try to remain conscious of your stress responses and work to minimize jaw clenching by noticing it and ceasing the behavior as soon as it is identified.

No one but you can stop grinding your teeth – although a neuromuscular dentist will be able to fit you with an orthotic device that conforms to the contours of your teeth to comfortably provide a barrier while you sleep. These same devices can often help treat other symptoms of TMD as well and may even work to restore proper alignment. If you continue to lead a stressful lifestyle however, a dental appliance may not be enough to fully treat your condition.

Stress Reduction

It is remarkable how many stress reduction techniques are effective. It is equally remarkable that we, as people, often jump through hoops and perform dazzling mental gymnastics to talk ourselves out of taking them up.

Take, for example, breathing. Your autonomic nervous system is the primary mechanism in control of your fight-or-flight response. As part of the peripheral nervous system, the autonomic nervous system regulates heart rate, respiratory rate, digestion, and a number of other unconscious bodily functions.

Your autonomic nervous system has two divisions:

  • Sympathetic, which prepares the body to take action
  • Parasympathetic, which calms and relaxes the body

When you breathe in and out through your mouth, you activate your sympathetic nervous system. Shallow breathing through the mouth, in particular, causes a stress response in the body that can quickly overtake rational thought.

The opposite is true of intentional breath drawn in and out through the nose. When you breathe in this manner, you signal to your body that everything is okay and encourage a relaxation response.

This is true for every human being. It is simply how we are built. This is also why the instruction to take 10 slow breaths in and out through the nose to combat stress and anger has been a go-to for centuries. Millenia, actually. The ancient disciplines of yoga and meditation revolve heavily around breath control. Within the past decade, many of those techniques have gained renewed interest as study after study adds credibility to the claim that intentional control of the breath produces a demonstrable philological effect, and that effect is relaxation.

All the same, when was the last time your response to stress was to slow down, take a few deep breaths, and just relax?

A Simple Breathing Exercise

Sitting in a comfortable position, place your hands, palms down, on your thighs. Gently close your eyes and begin to count your breaths. Try taking a slow, four to six-second inhale. Pause for two seconds at the peak and slowly release the air for an equal amount of time (four to six seconds). Pause for two seconds at the base and repeat until you have taken 21 full breaths.

More Tips for Reducing Stress

Breathing is one of the most effective and easy ways to encourage relaxation. So too are things like:

• Reducing caffeine intake

• Avoiding alcohol, nicotine, and narcotics

• Taking up a physically challenging pastime

• Getting more sleep

• Talking walks

Try to carve out a little bit of time every day to slow down and relax. The emotional and physical benefits can be remarkable and are often instant.

Dental Treatment for TMD

Stress reduction can go a long way in helping reduce the painful symptoms of TMD, but may not be enough to retrain muscles and restore alignment. For this, an oral splint or mouthguard may be needed. A customized orthotic to be worn during sleep may work to relax muscles while gently holding the jaw in its natural position. When combined with stress reduction, these devices often work to alleviate the symptoms of TMD and produce lasting results.

Not everyone with TMD will benefit from stress reduction and not everyone experiencing stress will develop TMD. It is nonetheless important that you know the symptoms of this disorder so that you can bring them to the attention of an experienced dentist should they present themselves.


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