If you are beginning to suffer symptoms of temporomandibular joint disorders (TMJ), you might have noticed that they seem to come and go with your body’s stress level. When you get upset, you may notice that you get jaw pain or headaches. That’s because stress can cause you to tense your jaw muscles or other muscles that may cause dysfunction in your jaw, causing symptoms that may run from your forehead to the tips of your fingers.

Identifying your stress triggers, also called stressors, can help you combat them and reduce the frequency or severity of your TMJ. If controlling your stress doesn’t help your TMJ symptoms, you might need professional care. Denver TMJ dentist Dr. Kevin Berry at the TMJ Therapy & Sleep Center of Colorado has helped many people manage their TMJ and may be able to help you.

adult woman stressed at her desk

How Stress Leads to TMJ

People with high levels of stress are at an increased risk of developing TMJ. The most common link is probably stress-related behaviors, such as:

  • Teeth clenching and grinding
  • Chewing non-food objects
  • Excessive caffeine consumption or smoking
  • Excessive alcohol consumption

Teeth clenching and grinding (bruxism) are likely directly related to TMJ. This behavior can lead you to bite down harder than you do when chewing food. This not only leads to damaged teeth, but it can cause damage to the jaw joint, tax the jaw muscles, and put pressure on nerves in the area. 

In addition to clenching and grinding their teeth, many people cause similar damage by stress-chewing on objects other than food. Chewing your nails, biting pen lids, clenching down on pencils, or chewing on hard, non-food objects can be damaging to your jaw. We also put excessive gum chewing in this category. 

Stimulants like caffeine and nicotine (the addictive substance in cigarettes and e-cigarettes) can ramp up your stress levels and increase teeth clenching and grinding. 

Many people think that alcohol helps them relax. Although alcohol does have sedative effects, it also works as a stimulant and can lead to more clenching and grinding. 

It’s important to remember that not all clenching and grinding happens while you’re awake. Sleep bruxism is common and can be highly damaging to your teeth and jaws. If you frequently wake with a sore jaw, it might be time to talk to Denver TMJ dentist Dr. Berry. 

Acute or Chronic Stress

When we’re involved in a dangerous situation or conflict, our body immediately responds by releasing stress compounds that prepare what is commonly described as the “flight or fight” response. This is acute stress, and it’s not considered a major problem, although it can lead to short-term TMJ flare-ups. Repeated flare-ups can then cause damage that leads to chronic TMJ symptoms. Repeated bouts of TMJ may also require care from Denver TMJ dentist Dr. Berry. 

Chronic stress is when you are exposed to stress for prolonged periods of time. It can result in many dangerous symptoms in addition to ongoing TMJ problems, such as sleeplessness and immune system deficiencies.

Identifying Stress Triggers

Before you can control your stress, you have to know what’s causing it. We can divide stressors into two major categories: external stressors (those caused by others) and internal stressors (those caused by you).

External stressors: External stressors include common factors like life changes, financial worries, job problems, and relationship problems. However, external stressors also include less recognizable problems like environmental stress due to home or workspaces that are too bright, too dark, too noisy, or otherwise stressful. It also includes physical stresses we put on our body through overwork or lack of sleep and exposing our body to stresses due to alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, or prescription drugs.

Often, these may start as acute stressors that become chronic.

Internal stressors: Sometimes we’re our own worst enemy, as is often the case with internal stressors. These may include irrational fears, anxiety, pushing oneself too hard, or planning.

Dealing with Stressors

Stress is cumulative, so anything you can do to reduce your overall stress may have surprising benefits, even if it doesn’t target the primary cause of your stress. Start by tackling  easy changes that can reduce stress, such as: 

  • Get more exercise
  • Get more and/or better sleep
  • Reduce intake of stimulants: caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol
  • Try to laugh more often
  • Spend time with people who help you de-stress
  • Learn to say no

These steps can help you decrease your body’s stress hormone levels. Most of them are also proven to be beneficial to your health. More exercise, more sleep, and fewer stimulants can all help you control stress hormones and improve your health. Even laughing more often has proven immune system benefits as well as being a way to reduce stress and your TMJ risk.

Next, make actionable plans that can help you feel more in control of your life. The key is to make them things you can act on because plans that you can’t pursue lead to more stress. Finally, if you can’t make headway against your stress, get help, either from friends and family or from a doctor.

Get TMJ Relief in Denver

If you are making headway against your stress, but your TMJ symptoms aren’t being reduced, you may have damage to the jaw joint that requires TMJ treatment to achieve relief and prevent further worsening of symptoms. Denver TMJ dentist Dr. Kevin Berry can evaluate the health of your jaw and recommend effective TMJ treatment. 

For help with TMJ treatment in Denver, please call (303) 691-0267 at the TMJ Therapy & Sleep Center of Colorado, located near the intersection of I-25 and Colorado Boulevard.