Bruxism is often described as a “bad habit,” like chewing fingernails or smoking. Your doctor or dentist might tell you that you need to quit doing it the same way you might be told to quit smoking or get more exercise. They may even give helpful tips about mindfulness or meditation that can help you relax.
Unfortunately, it’s not always that easy to stop clenching your jaw and damaging your teeth and jaw structure, causing jaw pain and headaches. Here’s why it can be hard to get control of your jaw clenching.
It’s Not All About Stress
One of the common causes of jaw clenching is stress. In times of stress, you might clench or grind your teeth the same way that others might chew on their fingernails or other objects.
If this is a cause of your jaw clenching, then something like meditation or other stress relief techniques could help, but stress isn’t the only, or even the primary cause of teeth clenching.
You Use Your Jaw More Than You Think
You probably are clenching your jaw more than you realize because you’re not always aware of the function of your jaw. You might think that you’re only using your jaw when you’re talking or when you’re chewing, but you’re actually using your jaw all the time.
Swallowing to clear saliva causes your jaw to clamp closed. Setting yourself to lift a heavy weight also sets your jaw. Even breathing can depend on your jaw clamping shut, especially if you have sleep apnea and your body is working hard to hold your airway open.
Why does it matter how often you’re using your jaw? Every time you use your jaw, you can trigger unconscious jaw clenching.
Why Your Jaw Clenches Unconsciously
But why does your jaw clench unconsciously? Partly it’s because your jaw has its own control and feedback mechanisms. When you chew, you don’t need to consciously tell your jaw how hard to bite down — it knows how hard to chew and how to avoid hitting your teeth together as you chew. That’s because the body’s control mechanisms have that under control. Your jaw is designed to to take most of those chewing tasks and regulate them without any interference from your conscious mind.
But when your jaw’s feedback systems are not working properly, this can cause your jaw to clench unconsciously and uncontrollably. Some of your muscles are tensed when they should be relaxed, while others are relaxed when they should be tensed, and they can’t get to the proper balance because your teeth and bones are interfering. This sets your jaw muscles against your teeth and jaw, and that’s the cause of your unconscious clenching.
This could be related to your teeth. Ideally, your teeth should come together so that your jaw is at a position of maximum rest. However, for many people, teeth don’t come together so easily, and it keeps your jaw muscles from relaxing. This contributes to the imbalance in your jaw regulation system.
Change Consumption Habits
Some of your jaw clenching is likely related to things you consume regularly. Caffeine, tobacco, and alcohol have been linked to jaw clenching. Caffeine is a stimulant, as is nicotine, one of the active ingredients in tobacco. Alcohol, on the other hand, is partly a relaxant, but also has a stimulant effect. While it might seem to relax you at first, it can cause excitation later that leads to jaw clenching. It may also be linked to sleep apnea.
Treat Sleep Apnea
Sleep apnea is when you stop breathing at night. This is usually because your airway collapses during sleep. Because your jaw partly supports your airway, you may clench your jaw to try to keep your airway open. Since apneas may happen hundreds of times a night, you essentially end up clenching your teeth all night long. Treating sleep apnea can help reduce clenching that happens overnight.
You Need to Change the Jaw System
Because you don’t have control over the self-regulating and feedback system in your mouth, when you have TMJ you may not be able to make yourself stop clenching your jaw, no matter how hard you want to.
Stopping this unconscious clenching requires restoring your jaw’s elements back to a configuration where your muscles, bones, and teeth are no longer working against each other. Instead, they will work together harmoniously, so that the optimal position for your jaw is good for all the parts involved, including the jaw, teeth, and muscles.