Chronic stress has become a part of our daily lives. Whether it’s from a work deadline, an upcoming school exam, filing taxes or being cut off in traffic. And being stuck indoors during a pandemic hasn’t helped.
Did you know, however, that stress is not only a constant source of emotional discomfort but also poses physical harm to our bodies? One of those areas where stress harms is our jaw, in which we may experience jaw pain and jaw tightness. It may not seem apparent at first, but over time the physical impact can become fairly severe. The good news is that we can reduce the damage caused by stress. Let’s begin by understanding what stress does to our bodies.
From the Stress to Bruxism: The Fight and Flight Response
When we are stressed, our body triggers a “fight or flight” response. It is how our body responds to dangers, both perceived or subconscious. During this subconscious response, the brain sends signals to our adrenal glands to release a cascade of hormones that alters our body to a heightened state of alertness and awareness. We notice our breathing increases, our heart rate increases, and our muscles activate and tenses up.
One of those muscles that tenses up is our masseter, the muscle in our jaw that is responsible for chewing and grinding food. When this muscle activates and tense up, our jaw stimulates an involuntary response to clamp down our teeth and causes our teeth to grind. This muscular condition is known as bruxism or teeth grinding and clenching.
Under normal circumstances, our body returns to normal and the bruxism will stop. However, when we experience repeated stresses one after another (also known as chronic stress), our body never has time to return to normal and we continue to have bruxism or constantly grind and clench our teeth. Over time, the repeated stress will cause our jaw muscle to become overworked. When that happens, our jaw starts to have spasms, feel tight, and ultimately becomes painful.
The most tenacious thing about chronic stress is that our body may continue to recognize stress even after we have fallen asleep. The “fight or flight” stress response remains active and our jaw continues to experience teeth grinding and clenching. The spasm, pain and fatigue can be at its worst during our sleep and we may experience the worst jaw pain soon after we wake up.
What We Can Do About Stress-induced Bruxism
Treating jaw pain and tightness related to stress-induced bruxism is similar to treating a strained muscle or overworked muscle. Many treatments recommended by dentists involve relaxing the jaw muscles and allow the jaw to rest. One of the most common treatments for bruxism is a custom night guard.
A well-fitted, custom night guard encourages your jaw to be positioned in a more restful state. At our most relaxed, restful state, our teeth typically are not touching. A night guard acts as a barrier separating your top teeth from your bottom teeth, which puts our jaw muscles in a more natural restful position and reduces bruxism. When we make our custom night guards, we estimate the rest position of your jaw using teeth models, allowing the jaw muscle to rest more than a pre-made, fixed nightguard.
Secondly, a night guard acts like a shock absorber and helps to balance the traumatic forces of bruxism. Just like our natural tendency to use one hand over another, we also have a tendency to clench and grind one side of our teeth or one particular tooth more than another. One of the ways we ensure that our custom night guard is well-balanced is by recreating how a person bites using their teeth model and adjusting any areas that are over-emphasized.
Why Custom Night Guard
A well-made custom night guard can go a long way in protecting your teeth against bruxism. Using the tooth impression, we are able to replicate some of the physiological functions of the jaw. By replicating the bodily functions, we can create a custom night guard that is not only more comfortable but also more beneficial to reduce the damage caused by bruxism than a pre-made, fixed nightguard.
For the most severe bruxism, a custom night guard may not be enough to relax the jaw. Other types of treatment include taking muscle relaxant medicine and physical therapy. It is advised that you see your local dentist if you feel you are in that category.