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Is Jaw Tension Causing Headache Pain?

Everyone carries tension differently. In the face of bad news, some people tense their shoulders; others tense their neck. But if you hold your tension in your jaw or grind your teeth, this could be leading to more than just a sore mouth.

Tension in the jaw—and the resulting tension radiating from the jaw—can cause muscle tension headaches and contribute to migraines by restricting blood flow. That’s why relaxing your jaw is crucial to eliminating headache pain.

Some people are aware that they clench or grind their teeth, but others have no idea they are doing it—for example, people who grind their teeth when they sleep. Here are some questions that can help you determine whether you hold tension in the jaw area:

  • Does your jaw ever feel sore?
  • Are your teeth wearing?
  • Has your partner told you that you grind your teeth while you are sleeping?
  • Are your teeth touching right now or are they slightly apart?
  • Is your tongue relaxed and lying on the bottom of your mouth or is it holding tension and touching the roof of your mouth?
  • Has your dentist told you it looks like you grind your teeth or recommended a night splint?
  • Can you easily open your jaw to three finger widths without straining?
  • Do you experience clicking or popping in your jaw?

There are many reasons people have excess tension in their jaw. People clench or grind their teeth when they are feeling physical pain, repressing anger or holding back something they want to say. Problems can also result from poor dental work or a motor vehicle accident, which can throw the jaw out of alignment, creating temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorders.

Dentists often prescribe night splints if a person has a problem with clenching or grinding. These splints can help protect the teeth from damage and wear, but they generally do not get to the root of the problem—the contraction of the muscles in the jaw.

That’s why it pays to familiarize yourself with the bones and muscles in the TMJ area. Take particular notice of the masseter and pterygoid muscles, as these are the muscles that generally constrict when people clench and/or grind their teeth. The masseter, located directly below the surface of the skin, is the primary muscle used for chewing, talking, and opening and closing the mouth. The supporting pterygoid muscles are deeper and can be felt only from within the mouth.

Constriction in the masseter and pterygoid muscles creates jaw tension, but it can also create increased muscle tension in the head that radiates into the temples, causing the temporalis muscles to tighten. This can, in turn, lead to headaches.

Taking Control
Excess clenching or grinding can damage your teeth—and necessitate very expensive dental work—but it is also preventable. You simply need to become aware of the problem and learn how to control it.
Here are a few feel-good tips that can help you relax your jaw area:

 1.  Jaw and temple massage: This is a quick and effective massage you can do while at your desk or watching television. With your teeth apart, use your fingertips to massage firmly around the TMJ. Then move your fingertips downward and massage the muscles lower on the jaw. Finally, move your fingertips up to the temporalis muscle and massage it in a circular motion. You should notice this area feeling really good after just a couple of minutes.

 2.  Pterygoid massage: The pterygoid muscles are located inside the mouth near the TMJ, so they are harder to access. Prepare by washing your hands thoroughly or using latex gloves.

Go into your mouth with your index finger and massage the pterygoid muscles, making sure to move in the direction of the muscle. If these muscles hold any excess tension, it will be easy to find them, as they will be somewhat tender or sore to the touch. Use firm pressure and massage for 30 to 60 seconds on each side. After removing your hand, pause for a moment to notice how these muscles now feel. They should feel slightly tender from being worked. If they don’t, try going a little deeper next time. Conversely, if they feel extremely sore, use softer pressure in the future.

If you are not sure you are doing this technique correctly, you can have a chiropractor, a massage therapist or an osteopathic physician guide you through pterygoid muscle massage.

There are a number of factors that contribute to head pain. If you want to keep your headaches in check, it’s important to mitigate as many of these factors as you can. Start today with these two simple exercises, and you can help keep jaw tension—and the resulting headaches—at bay. 

Kelsie Kenefick, MPS, BCB, LMHC, is the author of the award-winning book Migraines Be Gone and the founder of Naturally Pain Free. She created a home program that helps headache sufferers learn how to control their headaches. Learn more at

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