Mind & Body
How to Manage TMJ and Stress-Related Headaches
11/1/2020 1:00:00 PM

TMJ and Stress-Related Headaches


Stress is something that we are, unfortunately, no stranger to in 2020. Prior to this year, it was easy to become overwhelmed with the day-to-day grind and seemingly never-ending list of to-dos, and rightfully so. It is difficult to juggle all of the demands that life has placed on our shoulders with the ever-lofty expectations that others (ok, usually ourselves) place on accomplishing them. For those of us in Southwest Louisiana, we long for the days that seem so much simpler than the reality we are now living.  


Stress can be a strange thing. It affects our health more than we may want to believe or admit it has. If it can have a negative effect on our health in normal times, no wonder so many of us are feeling more aches and pain, losing sleep, and experiencing upset stomachs. Headaches are also connected to our stress levels. Not only can stress trigger a headache, it can also play a role in increasing its intensity if you are prone to experiencing them.


When we become stressed, our behaviors begin to change. We may clench our teeth or take shorter, more shallow breaths. Over time, these habits begin to create increased muscle tension and pressure within the head and face, resulting in headaches. 


The majority of people associate the telltale signs of popping or clicking in the jaw with Tempormandibular Joint (TMJ) Disorder, but there are other symptoms of TMJ, including ringing in the ear, facial pressure, headaches, and ear pain. Many of these can occur from clenching of the teeth or pressing the tongue into the roof of the mouth or back of the teeth for extended periods. You may not even be aware you are performing these actions, even if you’re experiencing headaches. 


Here is a quick test to find out if you are guilty of doing this: 

  • Standing in front of a mirror, open your mouth with your tongue relaxed at the bottom. 
  • Look at the edges of your tongue.
  • If you have indentions around perimeter of the tongue, this is called tongue scalloping, and you may experience symptoms coming from your jaw. 

Physical therapists may ask a client where he or she places their tongue in their mouth when not talking or eating. Most have never thought about this before and have no idea where their tongue rests. It should rest lightly on the roof of the mouth with the teeth slightly apart and lips together. This is an important position to maintain, because in doing so; you can greatly reduce the severity and frequency of headaches.  


Incorporating deep breathing techniques into your day can bring upon the most immediate changes in reducing headaches and facial pain. Deep breathing creates a relaxation response in the body and mind, increasing the release of endorphins, improving your sleep, and decreasing your blood pressure and heart rate. Take a few minutes each day to be aware of your breathing to better prepare your body’s response to the stressors we encounter each day. 


Breathing drills do not have to be complicated. Most of our watches even have reminders asking us to breath, and we still don’t do it! We just hit the dismiss button and go on about our business. Many of us feel we cannot add anything else into our day because we simply don’t have the time, but you may be surprised at how you will begin to feel, just by adding a couple minutes of breathing into your routine.  


Try this deep breathing technique:

  • Place your tongue in its resting position, lightly on the roof of the mouth with the teeth slightly apart and your lips together. 
  • Breath in slowly through your nose for a count of 4, focusing on expanding through your belly and lower ribs.
  • Exhale slowly through your nose for a count of 8 seconds, feeling the tension leaving your muscles in your neck and jaw.
  • Repeat for 1-2 minutes

We can all agree that 2020 has been an unprecedented year for SWLA, filled with hardships and uncertainty; but it has also been one filled with more love, generosity, and support than we could have ever imagined. While the old adage, you cannot change the past, is true, we can begin to embrace the hope of the future, learning new skills to help us feel better and move forward one day at a time.


Ashley Hornsby is a physical therapist and co-owner at Thrive Physical Therapy. For more information, call 337-990-5621 or email  info@thriveptla.com.

Posted by: by Ashley Hornsby | Submit comment | Tell a friend

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