If you suffer from anxiety and jaw pain, you’ve probably already thought about the relationship between TMJ and anxiety.
Stress can do a lot to your body, from IBS to eating disorders. But with TMJ, the clicking, the soreness, the restricted movement: jaw pain is a bummer, and there are plenty of articles across the internet drawing a connection between stress and your jaw.
But how accurate is the information passed around on message boards and news sites? When health blogs say that your problems at work are making it hard for you to chew, how accurate is the information they’re working with?
But before we get into the nitty-gritty, it’s probably a good idea to clear some things up about jaw pain and “TMJ” itself.
First of all, there are some things we should correct. While TMJ is commonly used to refer to a particular jaw problem, technically, “TMJ” refers only to the temporomandibular joint (TMJ is an acronym for the temporomandibular joint).
What people actually have is a disorder called TMD, or temporomandibular disorder,a group of conditions that affect your mouth and face in association with your TMJ. It can include joint disorder, facial pain, muscle tension and other issues with your jaw muscles.
However, for the purposes of this article, we’re going to refer to TMD as TMJ, just so no one gets confused.
Common symptoms of anxiety include muscle pain and muscular tension, but TMJ can also affect speaking, swallowing, chewing and can be caused by ligament, muscle and disc problems or combinations of all three.
TMJ can cause pain, joint sounds, limited movement, dislocation, headaches and other symptoms.
Many things can cause it, including bad posture, bruxism (or jaw clenching), fibromyalgia and other chronic conditions, autoimmune diseases or even some psychological factors.
It’s a common condition — estimates suggest that between 60 percent and 70 percent of the population likely have at least one TMJ symptom, but treatment is sought by only five percent of those people.
That’s a small fraction of the population, especially when you consider that TMJ can be a signal of some more serious issues going on inside your head.
TMJ disorders are actually a group of more than 30 conditions, all representing jaw joint and muscle dysfunction.
Some of them are caused by the things we’ve outlined already, but psychological and life stressors can be players in your risk of developing certain TMJ conditions over time.
Muscle activity in the body (and in this case, the jaw) can be altered due to increases in emotional stress and stress levels, and when those stress levels are frequently elevated, it can mean repetitive stress is applied to those muscle groups.
While the tight muscles in your neck, back, shoulders and other body parts might benefit from a quick massage, most of us don’t really think about jaw massages for stress relief.
That stress can build, and clenching and other behaviors that contribute to TMJ problems can become habits.
Yes, your mind can cause jaw problems. Those psychological factors include stress, depression and anxiety,
There are plenty of studies at this point examining the link between TMJ and stress and anxiety, and their findings have been fairly strong.
One 2011 study looked at the relationship between TMJ pain and anxiety before a university entrance exam by studying more than 100 students.
They found a positive correlation between TMJ pain and anxiety levels, both of which rose significantly between the first (10 months ahead of the exam) and second (one month ahead of the exam) data sets, suggesting a “probable” link between the two conditions, according to the authors.
The study looked at 273 TMJ pain sufferers and found that women were 3.7 times more likely to have TMJ issues than men, and people without a sufficient social support system were 3.5 times more likely than average.
And a 2021 study really put a cherry on top for these results. This study looked at dental students (yes, really) who had TMJ issues and asked them to fill out a questionnaire about both their TMJ issues and about stress, anxiety and depression.
The results were substantial: stress was identified as the most impactful factor in TMJ. Its significance outweighed the students’ gender, financial situations and even depression rates as risk factors for TMJ.
It’s a complicated problem. Treating stress, TMJ and anxiety with the same tools is a little like trying to make a pizza and a wood sculpture with the same ingredients: it’s not really the best way to go about things, and likely won’t taste very good.
While there are overlapping elements of treatment, it’s best to see them as two separate but connected health issues. Address them simultaneously, with separate methodologies.
Anxiety is a psychiatric disorder characterized by chronic and pervasive unease and panic. That panic is enough to make sleep, socializing and sex all impossible, but when it also causes you to slur your words, treatment can’t wait much longer.
When you treat anxiety, you can do it in a variety of ways. Everything from getting a better night’s sleep and cutting back on the caffeine to eating better and exercising can improve your mental health. But the same is true for proven techniques like therapy and medication, and no two treatments are created equal.
These days, anxiety is typically treated with cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT. CBT helps people with anxious patterns of thought reframe those patterns to develop healthier and more positive coping strategies. We’ve covered more about this in our guide to CBT For Anxiety.
And as for anxiety medication, many people have success with antidepressants, may help treat some of the symptoms of anxiety by affecting the levels of certain neurotransmitters in your brain. We’ve talked more about these medications in our guide to Medications For Anxiety.
CBT, antidepressants and other behavioral and mental health approaches may be beneficial for fighting psychologically induced TMJ, too. They also suggest additional treatments, which we’ll look at next.
Treating TMJ pain is going to require treatment of both the underlying problems and of the symptoms themselves. If your TMJ issues are associated with anxiety and stress, you should see above to learn how to treat the source. But for the physiological problems, there are additional treatments.
Physiotherapy is one of the most common treatment paths. In this form of therapy, you’ll learn techniques to exercise and mobilize tendons and muscles. Your provider may also suggest tools like thermotherapy and ultrasound.
They may also suggest things like a mouth guard or certain exercises to learn to reduce dental contact and involuntary muscle movements generally associated with TMJ issues.
Finally, depending on how severe your TMJ issues are, your healthcare provider may prescribe pain medications and anti-inflammatory medications. They may also consider the use of benzodiazepines, tricyclic antidepressants and other medications that, in addition to treating anxiety effectively, may have side benefits like pain reduction and muscle relaxation.
Of course, this is just a concise explanation of potential treatments — if you want to know what will work for your own needs, it’s time to take this conversation to a professional.
If your anxiety is so bad that it’s affecting your body, that’s a sign you need to take some action.
If you’re experiencing jaw pain, struggling to chew or talk or are generally feeling overwhelmed by stress and the anxiety it’s causing in your life, you may meet the criteria. Either way, it’s time to meet with a healthcare provider.
Only they can assess your symptoms and give you a formal diagnosis. Only a healthcare provider can help you to create a symptom management and disorder treatment plan that deals with the TMD and the anxiety you’re experiencing.
If you’re ready to deal with the anxiety, hers’ online therapy platform is a great place for the anxious, depressed and other people struggling with mental health to get connected with a therapy provider. You can also explore our other mental health resources for questions you still need answered.
If your jaw pain and anxiety are affecting your quality of life, you’re going to have to grit your teeth and get help. The good news is that asking for help is often the hardest part.
Kristin Hall is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with decades of experience in clinical practice and leadership.
She has an extensive background in Family Medicine as both a front-line healthcare provider and clinical leader through her work as a primary care provider, retail health clinician and as Principal Investigator with the NIH.
Certified through the American Nurses Credentialing Center, she brings her expertise in Family Medicine into your home by helping people improve their health and actively participate in their own healthcare.
Kristin is a St. Louis native and earned her master’s degree in Nursing from St. Louis University, and is also a member of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners. You can find Kristin on LinkedIn for more information.
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