How to avoid clenching my jaw?
April 2, 2008 11:24 PM   Subscribe

How can I avoid clenching my jaw or grinding my teeth due to stress?

It's getting to be That Time of the Semester. I'm short on sleep and under a lot of pressure as things ramp up to finals. I clench my jaw as a nervous habit and my teeth are killing me. When things get bad I can't really eat hard veggies and even dry cereal can cause a lot of discomfort.

I've been using hard candy and gum to prevent myself from grinding away, but I'm sure that an environment full of sugar can't be good, given the abuse my teeth have been taking. I have naturally strong teeth (no cavities) but I've got two baby teeth which were never replaced by adult teeth that I'm especially worried about. I'll be talking with my dentist about this, but I won't be able to travel home until after finals.

How can I train myself out the habit? What are other buffer-snacks I can use until then?

please no "sleep more, reduce caffeine, spend time decompressing, etc" replies. I'm doing what's necessary for the grades I want. I do these things already and it's still a problem. I'm looking to treat the symptom, not the cause.
posted by tylermoody to Health & Fitness (21 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
A friend used to clench his teeth when nervous and touted the wonders of biofeedback. Also, whenever he clenched his teeth, he would pause, take a breath, and then clench them as hard as he could for several seconds and then loosen his jaw so that later jaw-clenching would not be sustained.
posted by palionex at 11:38 PM on April 2, 2008

This is sort of hazily remembered from 10 years ago at medical school, but teeth grinding was taken pretty seriously then as a cause of both pain and dental problems. The treatments that I can recall being recommended were SSRIs like Prozac, a mouthguard / gumshield to wear at night, and some cognitive-behavioural therapy to try and get sufferers to stop by day. When you do see your dentist, it might be worth asking to be referred to a specialist teeth grinding clinic.

You may already have seen it, but this Mayo clinic summary, seems pretty comprehensive.
posted by roofus at 11:41 PM on April 2, 2008

I started resting my tongue between my teeth when I sat down to read or think or whatever. You get VERY conscious of what you're doing then. And so I learned not to grit my teeth when concentrating.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:03 AM on April 3, 2008

One recommendation I've heard for grinding in your sleep is to take a wine bottle cork and use it to prop open your jaws for five minutes before you go to sleep. Take care not to dislocate your jaw with a sudden movement. Apparently this stretches/tires/something the muscles and makes them more relaxed.

Generic mouthguards can be had at the pharmacy for $60 or so. Custom ones can be made by a dentist for a few hundred. Dentists take grinding seriously-- it will completely destroy your teeth if left unchecked, cavities or no.

IANAD, etc.
posted by alexei at 12:05 AM on April 3, 2008 [3 favorites]

I think Alexel has a potential solution for you here...what if you got one of the super generic ones, basically a glorified football mouth guard , or if you really want cheap, an actual football mouth guard? You microwave them in some water or dip them in really hot water, bite down and suck really hard so they suction onto your teeth to fit them. Then, you have no way to really grind your teeth AND there is no sugar involved.

Really, the only downside is that you have to feel alright looking like a goober when you study. But if you are studying in your room/house/dorm, it shouldn't be a problem right? And if you are studying in the library...well...find an unused corner somewhere? I mean, if people can practically conceive children in the stacks, I think you should be able to handle smuggling a mouth guard....
posted by Bibliogeek at 12:16 AM on April 3, 2008

The problem with using a mouthguard or something is that you're still clenching down onto the guard, which still tires out your jaw and leads to pain. It's a good solution if you're wearing down your teeth, but not so much for muscle soreness.

Try the old rubber band trick - wear a rubber band on your wrist and snap it when you notice yourself clenching.

Putting your tongue between your teeth is another excellent suggestion and a method that I used to help me with the same problem. Also make sure you're not taking in too much caffeine, since (at least for me) that can really trigger clenching.
posted by Addlepated at 12:33 AM on April 3, 2008

Thirding the tongue between the teeth. I come from a family of clenchers. My grandmother did it, my father does it and I used to do it. The tongue thing helps.
posted by LeeJay at 12:39 AM on April 3, 2008

Nthing the tongue technique. It has cured me of this bad habit soundly. I have taken now to putting my tongue between molars to relax myself, and it works really well. (However: I tired this once at fighters practice when my coach told me to relax during a bout, with predictably painful results.)
posted by Faux Real at 1:46 AM on April 3, 2008

Some of the suggestions for teeth-grinding (mouth guards and the like) would be likely to make jaw clenching problems worse, IMO.

I also clench my jaw during times of stress (unconsciously while awake and also while asleep) and I can definitely sympathize with how tense and painful it feels and am watching this thread closely to see what other people do. I know you're looking to treat the symptom and not the problem and feel like you can't make any adjustments in your life to reduce stress, but maybe that's not possible and there really is no other way to get relief. For me I have to treat the underlying anxiety to get any relief from jaw pain--the only thing I'd suggest that you didn't already rule out are anti-anxiety medications like benzodiazepines (e.g. klonopin, ativan or xanax). I don't know how you feel about psych. meds (SSRIs are already mentioned upthread--as a sidenote, I have found that Lexapro in particular made my jaw-clenching and anxiety symptoms worse but as with so many things, YMMV) but benzos have worked for me to treat symptoms of anxiety, which includes clenching your jaw. Maybe muscle relaxers would also work? I have no experience with those and so am just speculating.

Things I would worry about with taking benzos in your situation would be affects on memory and drowsiness, neither of which are great for studying. There is also the whole addiction potential thing, which people are very divided about. It's nearly impossible to OD on benzos, LD50 for most of them is like thousands of times commonly prescribed dosages, so because they are "safe" people worry less about taking them, but if you are predisposed to things like substance abuse I would tread carefully. They absolutely have a high potential for abuse and it always irks me when people are so dismissive of this fact. Many people can take these drugs successfully but many cannot.
posted by cosmic osmo at 2:01 AM on April 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

I would have thought chewing gum would make things worse. If you chew gum a lot then your jaw muscles are going to be more pronounced and therefore much harder to loosen in times of stress.
posted by 0bvious at 4:06 AM on April 3, 2008

My dentist made me a custom splint to wear at night. No more grinding, and my jaw joint pain is lessened 75%.
posted by whoda at 4:47 AM on April 3, 2008

Like the tongue-between-teeth technique, you can try biting the far corners of your mouth (the bottom lip probably works better, but it really depends on your own mouth shape). It's much less conspicuous when you're around other people, and forms a more natural resting position (it's not so far from where your mouth sits normally).
posted by aswego at 4:58 AM on April 3, 2008

I have a custom mouth guard to wear to protect my teeth from bruxism. (My dentist calls it a "bite guard", but whatever.) It's clear, so no one knows I'm wearing it unless I try to speak, and then I sometimes sound like I have, well, a big piece of plastic in my mouth. I am supposed to wear it for sleeping, and so it has become associated in my mind with that state of relaxation in bed before I drift off.

It has NOT given me an excuse to grind my teeth and clench my jaws even more. In fact, it has had the opposite effect. It's become a behavioral cue to relax my jaw muscles. It works better than any meditation tape or other calming strategy I've tried. I pop that baby in, and my whole face relaxes.

I would highly suggest that a plain old generic mouth guard from the drugstore will be much more useful as a way to teach yourself to relax your jaw muscles and stop the destructive clenching than candy or rubber bands or drugs or biting your mouth, and will have the additional benefit of providing some protection until you can get to a dentist.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 5:58 AM on April 3, 2008

I have read that magnesium and calcium supplements help with this?! I have never tried it (I'm not a grinder), but it might be worth exploring as a non-prescription drug remedy.
posted by picklebird at 6:17 AM on April 3, 2008

I'm on board with the "concentration" recommendation. You'd be amazed. I was doing this for awhile, getting worse and worse, and my dentist just told me to consciously stop myself whenever I realized I was doing it. Actually worked... stopped totally after two weeks and have never done it again.
posted by BirdD0g at 8:03 AM on April 3, 2008

I know that you've asked about "waking" solutions for jaw-clenching, but I wanted to add another anecdotal tale along the lines of what SuperSquirrel has posted above. My dentist had me try out a cheap sports mouthguard to help break my habit of grinding and clenching my jaws as I slept. The idea was that I could then upgrade to a more expensive, customized "bite guard" if I needed/wanted to. I never did do the upgrade - the cheap mouthguard worked exactly as SuperSquirrel has described, and "taught" me (surprisingly quickly) how to relax my whole face as I fell asleep.

The more relevant upside to all of this was that I stopped waking up with a sore, angry jaw in the morning, which made it much, much easier to stay relaxed throughout the day. I also learned to recall the feeling of a relaxed face from the night before, so that even when I didn't have the mouthguard around, it became easier to relax my jaw when I started to tense up.

The mouthguard took a little getting used to, but it's a cheap and easy thing to try out while you're waiting to see your dentist. Good luck - I'm sending happy jaw vibes your way!
posted by Hellgirl at 8:19 AM on April 3, 2008

When you notice you're clenching your teeth, press the tip of your tongue -- hard! -- against the back of your top front teeth.

If you're on any meds, talk to your doctor about it. Bruxism can be a side effect of Zoloft and other SRIs.

Lips together, teeth apart. Lips together, teeth apart. Lips together...
posted by The corpse in the library at 9:10 AM on April 3, 2008

I have this condition badly and I ended up going to a specialist who made a custom mouthgard. It's an unusually small one called an NTI device and it is about 1/2" wide and goes only between your front teeth. It was expensive but was the only thing that did the trick. It is very precisely measured and sized to set your jaw correctly.

The angle at which you clench is a huge determiner of how much pain and damage you will cause. For the love of god don't put a cork in your mouth or you could do real damage.

You may be able to train yourself not to clench during the day but it's usually sleep clenching that causes the most damage because you can do it really hard and unconsciously.

It is worth trying a generic mouthgard because it least it gives you a flat surface for your bottom teeth, which allows your jaw to slide around in relation to your top teeth. The problem with grinding is not just the pressure but also that for most people, when your jaw is fully closed and your teeth meet, the orientation of your teeth forces your jaw into a fixed position and that position is rarely the ideal one for your jaw muscles. This is especially true of those who have had braces, which usually focus on cosmetics rather than jaw position. Your baby teeth may also contribute to incorrect orientation.

Good luck!
posted by underwater at 9:57 AM on April 3, 2008

Put on a loose fitting T-shirt, find a nice Asian nail salon near you, and go in for a 30-minute backrub. Tell them you store a lot of tension in your neck and/or shoulders and you want them to focus on that. Repeat once every 2-3 weeks. This works wonders for stress that manifests as jaw clenching.
posted by Caviar at 10:12 AM on April 3, 2008

Multi- B vitamins that include magnesium and calcium. Don't overdo it- just the recommended amount should be fine. It may help (it helps me), and won't hurt.
posted by oneirodynia at 11:39 AM on April 3, 2008

No matter what you do during the day (tongue technique, etc), you won't be able to avoid it at night. I strongly recommend a bite guard. Is there a local dentist you can go see? When I was at school and my jaw started killing me, I got a recommendation for a dentist and was able to make an "emergency" appointment - they made the bite guard that day. I actually find that the kind I have (rubbery, flexible, fits on the bottom teeth) makes my jaw relax a bit if I wear it during the day. It helps a ton at night as well.
posted by radioamy at 8:33 PM on April 3, 2008

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