Protecting your smile from stress

Protecting your smile from stress 7/19/2019

As a college student, I seem to live in a constant state of stress and anxiety, whether it’s an upcoming exam, extracurricular responsibility or the thought of my ever-accumulating student debt. This chronic stress ended up affecting my oral health, causing jaw pain, lockjaw and difficulty chewing. After years of symptoms, I took a trip to my dentist and discovered that I wasn’t alone.

You may have heard of TMJ, short for temporomandibular joint, which are the joints that connect your jaw to the bones in your skull that help you chew, yawn and talk.1 But, what about TMD, also called temporomandibular disorder, syndrome and dysfunction? Though it sounded intimidating, my dentist and I were able to recognize this very common jaw discomfort caused by stress and anxiety.

Symptoms of TMD

TMD can cause a wide range of symptoms including but not limited to the following: 2

  • Jaw pain or tenderness
  • Difficulty chewing
  • Jaw popping or clicking
  • Toothaches and/or headaches
  • Lockjaw or jaw dislocation

If you’ve experienced TMD, you’re not alone! It is very common and more than 10 million people in the U.S. experience it, mostly women ages 20 to 40 and those with rheumatoid arthritis or fibromyalgia.3

Managing TMD

Here are some tips my dentist recommended to manage my TMD:

  • Avoid hard or chewy foods. Foods like gum and hard nuts can wear down the cartilage in the TMJ, causing even more inflammation.  
  • Make a conscious effort to separate your jaw during the day. Subconscious tooth grinding can cause teeth to break down, leaving them vulnerable to cavities.
  • Invest in night guards. Stress is more prevalent during stressful periods (ex. finals week). Night guards offer your teeth protection while you sleep.
  • Two I’s: Ibuprofen and ice. During times of pain, I reach for ibuprofen and ice. Apply ice for 20 minutes while gently massaging the jaw to open it.
  • Find ways to manage stress. Remember, the cause of your pain is stress. I use techniques like conscious breathing, yoga and exercise to relieve physical tightness during times of outstanding stress. No yoga studio nearby? Countless online programs make yoga class easily accessible from anywhere. I also like to create a de-stressing music playlist. Pro tip: Perform these stress management techniques before bed to avoid tooth grinding or jaw clenching at night.

It doesn’t matter where you work, how old you are or what you do in your personal life, everyone experiences stress. But, what matters in the long run is how you manage it … or don’t. The way I see it, you can either control stress or your stress can control you.

If you are experiencing these symptoms, or you believe that your stress is controlling you, schedule an appointment to talk to your dentist about managing TMD.

1 Freidman, Michael. “Temporomandibular Joint Disorders (TMJ & TMD): Overview,” WebMD (2017), web.

2 Cunha, John P. et al, “Temporomandibular Joint Syndrome (TMJ),” Medicinenet (2019), web.

3 Hahn, Adam DMD, “Large Study Shows TMJ More Common than Thought,” Smile Columbia Dentistry (2014), web.

Kate Bartig bio By Ally Telfor
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