If you’ve spent any amount of time on Twitter or Instagram or TikTok over the past year, you’ve probably encountered a post encouraging you to unclench your jaw. Everyone from Tyler Oakley to Domino’s to the United Nations has gotten in on the action. And as annoying as it might be to be commanded to practice self-care from a pizza parlor, “unclench your jaw” isn’t just a meme. It’s actually good advice.
Bruxism, a.k.a. jaw clenching or teeth grinding, is one of our bodies’ many natural stress reactions. After the years we’ve just experienced, it’s no wonder that more people are experiencing it (and then Tweeting about it). It can seem at times like we’re all stressed out scrolling demons, hunched over our screens with bad posture and clenched jaws. Dentists have noticed too.
“My schedule used to book six to eight weeks in advance. Now I’m booking five to six months in advance,” says Dr. Jennifer Buchanan, a dentist and orofacial pain specialist based in San Rafael, California. Her practice focuses on patients who suffer from pain caused by bruxism, sleep apnea, and a host of other issues. The result isn’t just sore muscles, but sometimes also ground-down teeth, because we can bite down with up to 250 pounds of force.
So besides heeding random reminders in your social media feeds, what are you supposed to do when you notice your jaw aching? “Jaw tension is sometimes telling you that your body needs more support, but you can really feel better without tools, night guards, or day guards” says Dr. Buchanan. “When you notice pain, the first thing is changing your daytime habits.” Here’s a few places to start.
Check your mouth posture.
Brace yourself for this one: Your teeth shouldn’t touch during the day. “When we look at studies of patients with and without jaw muscle pain, a much greater percentage of people with jaw muscle pain are touching their teeth together during the day,” says Dr. Buchanan.
To experience how your mouth should feel when it’s resting, go ahead and say the word “mine” out loud. Your jaw should be dropped softly open and forward, with your teeth slightly apart and the tip of your tongue resting just behind your top front teeth. If this isn’t your body’s resting position, don’t stress…because that could make it worse.
Use all those good stress coping mechanisms.
Do you wake up feeling fine and then begin to notice jaw pain by the end of the day? Or do you wake up feeling terrible and it gets better? If it’s the former, then you’re probably unconsciously clenching throughout the day in stressful situations. Doing things like exercise, journaling, and getting a good night’s sleep will help lower those cortisol levels that could be causing you to clench in the first place.
Unclench your whole body—not just your jaw.
Whether you encounter a digital checkpoint or just notice midday muscle soreness, take that moment to unclench your whole body instead of just your jaw. “Take a big soft breath so that your ribs soften and expand,” says Dr. Buchanan. “Roll your shoulders a bit and move your ribs around with some gentle stretching. Gently puff your cheeks with air like Dizzy Gilespie and make the n sound to remind yourself of that mouth posture.”
Massage the muscles for relief.
I started using facial massage to ease jaw pain after encountering—what else—a TikTok about proper gua sha technique from Sandra Lanshin Chiu, an acupuncturist, Chinese herbalist, and founder of Treatment by Lanshin healing studio. “For jaw tension specifically, facial Gua Sha can be used by people at home as a self-care practice,” says Chiu. “Professionally, we often use it to restore healthy circulation and relieve the tension of the muscles in the neck and shoulders, which are important areas to relieve jaw tension.”