TMJ, joint stiffness, ringing in the ears, headaches, earaches, toothaches…wow! So many issues can arise from tightness in the jaws. Outside of using your fingers to massage this area and the tips recommended in this article by Save Yourself, we’d also recommend a couple of techniques:
- release tension in the jaw by simply bringing the tip of your tongue to the area where your top teeth meet the gum line
- breathing exercises to release stress
- opening and closing the jaw to release the tension
- massaging with a smooth Tension Release Ball
Try rubbing/massaging the area described and see if you find any tension that you hadn’t realized you had!
Massage Therapy for Bruxism, Jaw Clenching, and TMJ Syndrome
Perfect Spot No. 7, the masseter muscle of the jaw
by Paul Ingraham, Vancouver, Canada
Trigger points (TrPs), or muscle knots, are a common cause of stubborn and strange aches and pains, and yet they are under-diagnosed. The 13 Perfect Spots are trigger points that are common and yet fairly easy to massage yourself — the most satisfying and useful places to apply pressure to muscle. For tough cases, see the advanced treatment guide.
- Pain Location: in the side of the face, jaw, teeth (rarely)
- Problems: bruxism, headache, jaw clenching, TMJ syndrome, toothache, tinnitus
- Related Muscle: masseter
Your masseter muscle is your primary chewing muscle — not the only one,1 but the main one — and it covers the sides of the jaw just behind the cheeks. It’s also the main muscle that clenches your jaw and grinds your teeth, unfortunately, and it’s one of the most common locations for trigger points in the entire human body.2 It is an accomplice in many cases of bruxism (that’s latin for “grinding your teeth”) and temporomandibular joint syndrome (a painful condition of the jaw joint), and probably other unexplained painful problems in the area — it will be either a contributing factor or a complication.
“TMJ syndrome” is often mistakenly referred to as just “TMJ”. This isn’t a casual shortening of the term: people really think “TMJ” refers to the syndrome. But the acronym TMJ refers just to the joint. This makes it slightly amusing for me when people earnestly tell me, with grave concern, “I have chronic TMJ.”
“I know the feeling!” I tell them. “I also have a temporomandibular joint I can’t get rid of — been there since I was born!” Yuk yuk.
The masseter muscle is strong (and special)
Not only does the masseter muscle probably harbour the most common trigger points in the human body, the masseter is also the strongest muscle in the human body (pound for pound), although many variables make this is difficult to be sure of.4 Together with the temporalis muscle and a few other smaller muscles, most people can generate at least 150 pounds of force (lbf) between their teeth. For contrast, the world record for human bite strength is 975 lbf. 975!5 More than six times normal. A human shark!
Muscles might all seem similar, but it’s amazing how specialized they can be. The masseter gets extraordinary strength from a “multipennate” arrangement of fibres that’s like a complex feather — fibres converging diagonally on several internal tendons.6 This feathered arrangement favours torque over speed, making the masseter a very “low gear” muscle, slow but powerful and efficient, lots of chewing bang for your masseter buck. The physics details are a bit mind-bendy.7
Why is the masseter muscle a Perfect Spot for massage?
It’s easy enough to imagine why this muscle might enjoy the occasional massage. Whose jaw isn’t a bit tense? But the masseter’s potential to wreak havoc — and its need for therapy — is often underestimated by everyone, both patients and professionals. (Although I’m pleased to see a surprisingly strong interest in the subject amongst dental specialists.) When irritated, masseter muscle knots can cause and/or aggravate several problems:
Headaches, of course — this makes strong intuitive sense to most people. There seems to be a pretty strong connection between tension headaches and jaw clenching. This is partly due to the temporalis muscle, which is reflexively massaged by everyone with a headache. But the masseter is often neglected, even though it is by far the more powerful jaw muscle. They really both need some attention — massaging above and below the cheekbone. I actually considered defining Spot No. 7 as the temple and the masseter.8
Earaches and toothaches — which are much less obvious. A masseter trigger point can radiate pain directly into a tooth. Travell and Simons quip, “This can lead to disastrous results for an innocent tooth.”9 I once suffered a dramatic case of a “toothache” that was completely relieved by a massage therapist the day before an emergency appointment with the dentist: a particularly vivid experience, which originally got me interested in trigger points.
Tinnitus (ringing in the ears) and dizziness. Both can be serious and complex problems, and are definitely not necessarily caused by masseter trigger points. There are many other potential contributing factors and causes of these conditions — but the masseter is one of the possible causes that should be considered.10
Bruxism, or grinding and cracking of molars.
Temporomandibular joint syndrome, which is a slow, painful failure of jaw joint function.
As you can see, masseter problems are not to be taken lightly.
How do you massage the masseter muscle?
Fortunately, it’s easy — really easy — to massage and soothe your own masseter muscle, which is what makes it such a particularly perfect Perfect Spot. It has both great needs and it’s unusually easy and satisfying to self-massage.
The masseter muscle “hangs” from the underside of the cheekbone on the side of the face. The bottom of the muscle attaches to a broad area on the side of the jawbone.
Perfect Spot No. 7 is conveniently located in a notch in the cheekbone, about one inch in front of your ears. The notch is on the underside of the cheekbone, it’s easy to find, and your thumb or fingertip will fit into it nicely, unless you have freakishly large hands. If you press firmly inward and upwards with your thumb in the cheekbone notch, you will usually be rewarded with a sweet ache.
The rest of the masseter muscle, however, tends to feel like not much, or unpleasantly tender. Although the entire muscle can be rubbed gently, most people will find that the Perfect Spot is definitely limited to the upper edge of the muscle.
Spot 7 is a sturdy piece of anatomy, so don’t be afraid to work steadily up to hard pressure — if that’s what you feel like you want. Either constant pressure or small, kneading circles are both appropriate. Since this spot is so tough, another good trick is to use a knuckle for extra pressure. A useful tool in this location is Pressure Positive’s Knobble product — it’s easy to lie down on your side and let the weight of your head apply a steady, firm pressure, with the tip fitting nicely into the cheekbone notch.
Two tricks for learning to relax your jaw
Does anyone go to the dentist anymore and not get a prescription for a mouth guard? Judging by the inevitable prescriptions, apparently everyone has some kind of jaw-clenching problem. I do not know if this is actually the case, and sometimes I feel suspicious that the problem is greatly over-diagnosed (because selling mouth appliances is probably profitable). Then again, many people (including my wife) have actual cracks in their molars from clenching so hard — and it’s kind of hard to argue that there isn’t a problem there!
This article is mostly about massaging Perfect Spot 7 in the masseter, but it’s obviously potentially extremely helpful for temporomandibular joint syndrome, bruxism, clenching, and grinding if you can also figure out how to relax your jaw. But this is not easy. A nice massage (or any other relaxing experience) is a helpful start, but it doesn’t do much for long.11 And simply willing yourself to stop clenching seems almost completely ineffective. Simply willing yourself to stop clenching seems to be almost completely ineffective I’ve known many people who have tried to get serious about reminding themselves to stop clenching, using egg timers and so on … with rather underwhelming results.
So what can you do? How can you possibly learn to clench less? Here are two ideas that I think work better than simply “trying hard” not to clench:
The Fake Drunk — Slur your speech as though you are so sleepy that you can hardly form words. You know that lovely feeling when you’re waking up slowly, in no hurry, and you’re conscious yet not even remotely ready to move or speak yet? That floaty, delicious feeling of happy paralysis? Of complete contentment to just lie there? Don’t just visualize that feeling, actually act like you feel that way, in your mouth. To get into the spirit of the thing, speak the words, “I’m so relaxed I can hardly talk,” and slur your words. Literally slur them. Slur them like your mouth is so relaxed you are having trouble making words! You will find that this is quick and effortless way to relax your jaw. It won’t necessarily last, but it is a most helpful way to quickly get back to the state you want.
I use this technique even when there are people around. I find that I can easily just mouth the words “I can hardly talk,” making no noise, and immediately access the sensory experience of jaw relaxation, with no one around me having a clue about what I’m up to.
The Long Surprise: Spend long periods of time with your jaw wide open. Hold your mouth open at least wide enough to fit a finger between your teeth for one full hour. Not just open, but open wide — as though you are really just shocked by something, continuously, for an hour. Every time during the hour that you catch yourself with your teeth together, simply calmly stretch your mouth open again. After an hour of this, clenching starts to feel abnormal, and you will find it much easier to keep your jaw relaxed for some time afterwards.
You may also find it helpful to actually prop your mouth open with something durable and spit-proof, such as a Lego block, or a small rubber ball. Most people will salivate too much to keep this up for an entire long session, but it can be a useful way to help you focus on the challenge for a few minutes at a time. Some people may find it practical for longer.
This intensive approach is generally a much more effective method of breaking the clenching habit than scattered self-reminders to “stop clenching,” which just never really take. If you are really determined, spend an hour a day holding your face like someone just stuck a needle in your keister. If you put in the time, you really can’t fail. I estimate that most people need 5–10 hours of practice in a week to put a good dent in a clenching habit. Of course, life is likely to regenerate the problem back sooner or later … but you will know what to do when that happens.
Good luck, and have fun with it.