The Role of Stress in Jaw Symptoms

There are three basic categories of causes related to jaw pain and dysfunction.  These are discussed elsewhere on this site (see causes of jaw problems).  This article focuses on one of these 3 primary categories of causes, namely emotional stress.

One of the things that make jaw disorders very different from other orthopedic problems in the body is the role that stress plays.  Stress can cause many physical complications, including:

  • Increased muscle tension, especially in the upper quarter of the body
  • Clenching or grinding of the teeth and/or jaws
  • Poor sleep quality (which, in turn, prevents muscles from restoring and resting)
  • Overloading of the jaw joints (due to the increased muscle tension)
  • Altered breathing (when stressed, we breath with our rib muscles, rather than the diaphragm)
  • Lowering of our pain tolerance (by making our nervous system hypersensitive)
  • Reduced blood flow to our limbs
  • Tension headaches
  • Neck pain
  • The “Fight or Flight” response, which involves many hormonal changes in our body
  • Stress causes “parafunction”, meaning the body is being used abnormally, often by way of harmful habits

In a very real sense, stress is a form of trauma to the body.  The head, neck, and jaw are primary targets for this stress-response.  For the vast majority of patients, experiencing this stress does not mean they are “emotionally unstable.”  However, it can mean that their lifestyle is taking a toll on their body.  Pain symptoms are often a way in which the body is sending a message that our lifestyle and the sources of our stress are unhealthy or even damaging to our body.  In my practice, 2/3 of the patients I see have a significant stress component that is driving their symptoms.  Another factor for many of my patients with stress-related symptoms is expecting too much of themselves, or driving themselves to the point of exhaustion on a regular basis.  This includes high school students attempting to get straight A’s while taking college-level courses.  Too many of us don’t want to admit that we have limitations.  Our body often pays a high price for this attitude.

Unfortunately, “good stress” is as traumatic to the body as “bad stress.”  For example, preparing for a wedding can affect the body as adversely as preparing for a funeral.  Often, my patients state that there is nothing they can do about their stressful lifestyle.  A single parent with 3 school-age children who has to work full-time and care for their ill parents is a typical patient in my practice.  However, unless the patient can 1) recognize how their stress is adversely affecting their body, and 2) Commit to making more healthy lifestyle choices, there is often a limited amount we can do to provide lasting relief from their symptoms.  This is because stress cannot only initiate the cause of symptoms, but unresolved stress will also perpetuate these symptoms later on after treatment.  As a doctor, my goal is to assist patients in achieving long-term relief from their symptoms.  However, unless the stressful causes of symptoms are effectively eliminated, there is a higher risk for symptoms returning in the future.

There are many things that can be done to address these stressful causes of jaw symptoms.  The first and most important is to recognize that stress can be a major factor in creating the problem. The patient cannot be part of the solution to overcoming their symptoms if they are in denial about what is causing them.

Recent research has demonstrated that our attitude about our stress can be extremely important.  I invite you to watch this TED talk for more information on this concept.

Treatment of jaw problems frequently requires a team approach.   In many cases, the most important member of that team is the patient themselves.  And one of the most effective things they can do to help themselves feel and function better is to recognize the stress in their lives and explore ways to resolve it. 

Other helpful ways to address stress include:

  • Getting adequate sound sleep (for most people this means 8 hours)
  • Start some form of exercise  (walking regularly can be excellent)
  • Make a list of all the sources of your stress
  • Avoid excessive use of stressful substances, such as caffeine, nicotine, sweets, high-sugar drinks
  • Attend a class on stress-reduction training
  • Look for help with stress online or in a book
  • Ask your family, spouse, or friends for support
  • Look for other employment if you are in a stressful job
  • If you are provided with a CD for stress-reduction training, listen to it daily
  • Notice what you are doing or what situation you are in during the times your symptoms are most severe—these are clues about your stress-sources.
  • If you are a student, either cut your school load or ask for help from teachers, tutors, or others.
  • Consider a professional counselor to help identify and address the stress
  • Look in the patient resources section of this site for other tools

In summary, honestly exploring the sources of stress and being willing to take necessary steps to address them will help insure the success of your jaw treatment, and reduce the risk of these problems returning in the future.