Of the stress-holding muscles, those involved in mastication (or chewing)—such as the masseter, the jaw’s most powerful muscle—take a beating.
If you notice muscle pain in the jaw, neck, or upper back, headaches, or feel the need to stretch your mouth, it's likely related to the temporomandibular joint (TMJ), which connects your jawbone to your skull, says Valerie Martins, D.M.D., a periodontist at Martins Dental Partners in Beverly, Massachusetts. To find the TMJ, run hand up jaw line to the prominent protrusion just in front of ear. There will be a large bump that moves under fingertips while opening and closing mouth. Just beyond this bump will be a little divot that is the other half of your TMJ.
Sometimes the problems are genetic or anatomical, boiling down to the way your teeth are positioned, she notes. A forward tilt of the head from staring down at a phone or chewing gum, which over-exerts the muscles, can also be to blame. But often, the prominent cause is stress.
“Many people experience clenching or grinding of their teeth both during their regular daily activities and overnight which leads to jaw tightness and soreness,” says Allison English, a yoga instructor at Equinox’s Chicago clubs.
It crops up in fitness, too. “When a movement or a yoga pose is too challenging, clenching the jaw is often a sign to back off and move into a regressed form of the exercise to regain strength, form, alignment, and relaxation,” says English. (Heavy lifters take note: in something like a deadlift, athletes may intentionally clench their jaw to create tension, so it isn't always an accurate predictor of something being too high threshold, says New York City-based Tier X health coach Matt Delaney.)
Fortunately, because the jaw, neck, head, and shoulder muscles are all related to and pulling on one another, self-myofascial release can effectively address pain, says English. “Just like any other joint in the body, the jaw joint itself needs regular movement in all its possible directions to maintain circulation and health.”
Below, five tension-releasing moves English suggests. These exercises can be done as a treatment if your jaw feels stuck and tight or if you grind your teeth at night, or they can be done to prevent TMJ pain and neck stiffness.
How to: Sit down and lean left ear toward left shoulder without straining. Reach right arm and hand down and away from right shoulder and release the right side of neck. Open jaw so upper and lower rows of teeth are separate and jaws muscles relaxed. Once neck releases, begin to slide lower jaw from side to side which will slowly massage the TMJ joint. Do the jaw glides with your head relaxed to the side for 8 to 10 breaths (about 8 to 10 jaw glides essentially) then bring your head back to center and repeat on other side.
Why it works: “Releasing muscular tension along the side of your neck helps relax your jaw muscles,” says English. “Merging this muscle release with a dynamic jaw joint movement helps to realign and soothe your jaw, neck, and face.”
How to: Lie down on left side and place a large myofascial release ball under left TMJ joint. Rest the weight of head on the ball and support left side of body with cushioning if needed. Slowly nod your head yes and shake it head no. Hold steady and open and close mouth. Continue for no longer than 90 seconds, then repeat on the other side.
Why it works: “This exercise releases tension from your TMJ and the results radiate through your face, jaw, and neck.”
How to:Stand against a wall. Place back of head on the wall and bend arms in a goal post shape at 90-degree angles. Maintain shoulders and arms on the wall while moving arms up and down the wall slowly. Make sure jaw stays soft and relaxed and back of head remains on the wall. Repeat for 1 to 3 minutes.
Why it works: “This simple exercise helps realign the muscles of your upper back, chest, neck, and head. In doing so, it releases tension that might be radiating into your neck and jaw.”
How to: Move lower jaw out and back in the shape of an infinity sign in the plane parallel to the ground, gently massaging TMJ joints. Do 5 to 8 infinity loops in each direction.
Why it works: “This is another dynamic mobility exercise to reclaim the natural movements of the jaw joint and to massage away where this joint may have become stuck through clenching or grinding.”
How to: Sit, stand, or do a lunge and on exhalation open mouth wide, stick out tongue, and either sigh out or scream. Repeat as necessary.
Why it works: “Opening your mouth wide and stretching your tongue helps to stretch out tension from your jaw joint,” English says. “Exhaling clearly or with sound assists with the expression piece of relieving jaw pain and tightness.”