NIghttime Jaw Pain: How to Address It

Quality sleep is critical to overall health. While many people think they can get by on just 4 or 5 hours when they’re busy, this is a critical mistake that affects your health in many ways. Long-term sleep deprivation leads to a host of health problems including diabetes, heart disease, and weight problems. As if that weren’t enough, being sleep deprived decreases your ability to cope with pain and stress.

If you are living with a temporomandibular disorder (TMD), or have TMJ problems that haven’t yet been diagnosed, you may actually dread lying down at night. TMD and jaw pain can make sleep difficult, leading to a long night of tossing and turning, pain and discomfort, and of course, overwhelming fatigue the next day. It’s a vicious cycle that will only continue until you get to the root cause of your TMD. Sadly, for many patients, this can take years. TMD symptoms can be difficult to diagnose and are often mistaken for other health problems.

Below, we will examine the most common reasons for nighttime jaw pain and what you can do about each.

Jaw Pain Trigger #1: The Wrong Mattress

If you’re sleeping on a mattress that’s over 10 years old, it’s probably time to replace it. Mattresses aren’t designed to last more than a decade, and many will start to break down well before this time. This can mean you’ll get improper support to keep your back and neck aligned, which can lead to tension in the facial muscles. As a result, you may wake up with a headache, a tense jaw, sore TMJ muscles, and general achiness. This pain may also bother you during the night, costing you valuable rest.

Even if your mattress isn’t old, you may be sleeping on one that isn’t right for you. A mattress that’s too firm can create pressure points that can aggravate jaw pain. Too soft, and you may find yourself sagging into the middle and sleeping with a twisted or turned back. The position of your neck and back has a direct effect on the health of the TMJ, so you want them all to be aligned as you sleep.

With hundreds of mattress types on the market, how do you choose the right one? There is no one right answer for those with TMD; it’s a very individual decision. We recommend trying the mattress out for as long as possible before committing to it. If you can’t take it home for a trial, lie down on it in the store for at least 10 minutes with a properly sized pillow. Whether you choose memory foam, spring, or an adjustable type is up to you. Just make sure you wake up without aches and pains.

Jaw Pain Trigger #2: Sleeping on Your Stomach

Sleeping position is largely dependent on comfort and habit. Some people are side sleepers, some love to sleep on their backs, and others sleep on their stomachs. Stomach sleeping, however, could be doing more harm than good where your jaw is concerned.

When you sleep on your stomach, you could be straining your back and neck into a backward position, which causes misalignment of the jaw and worsened TMJ symptoms. If you use a pillow, this can cause even more backward curving and pain. This puts undue pressure on the lumbar spine as well.

Stomach sleeping also puts pressure on the face itself as it is pressed directly into a pillow or mattress. Even a slight push on the jaw at night can lead to major headaches and jaw pain in the morning. You may also notice ear ringing when you wake, which can be a result of the jaw’s pressure near the ears.

While it can be difficult to change sleeping position, it’s worth the effort to get out of the stomach sleeping habit. Try putting pillows on either side of you to discourage rolling onto your stomach, or attach a marble to your belly with a band-aid. When you try to roll on your stomach, the discomfort of the marble will cause you to roll back to your side.

Jaw Pain Trigger #3: A Subpar Pillow

Many people get attached to their favorite pillow and, as a result, keep it for years beyond its prime. But a pillow has one critical job: to keep your head and neck aligned with your back while you sleep. Whether you sleep on your side or back will also impact the size, shape, and firmness of the pillow.

Know your favorite sleeping position and choose a pillow that keeps your back and neck straight while you’re in that position. In general, a pillow for a back sleeper will be softer and flatter than one for a side sleeper. A side-sleeping pillow has to be supportive enough to keep your neck straight against the height of your shoulder.

Be sure you have the right mattress before you shop for a pillow. In general, a firmer mattress requires a firmer and higher pillow. The two should be a good match to keep your spine, neck, and jaw aligned in a way that works for your sleeping style and body type.

Jaw pain trigger #4: Grinding at Night

Nighttime grinding can be the result of many things, including stress, muscle tension, or one of the three issues mentioned above. This habit wears down your jaw muscles and causes TMD symptoms in many people. But, resolving it is not as simple as buying a bite splint.

While a bite splint will keep your teeth safe from any future damage, it doesn’t resolve the grinding issue itself. As a result, you’ll continue to grind on the splint at night and may still wake up with jaw or facial pain or other symptoms of TMD.

To stop grinding for good, you’ll need some help to find out the root cause. It could be a combination of stress, back, neck, or jaw misalignment, tooth problems, and more. Talk with a doctor who is heavily experienced in treating TMJ problems and orofacial pain. Together, you can get to the bottom of your grinding and what can be done to give you much-needed relief — and better sleep.

Finally, if you’re looking for some ways to get better sleep in general, we recommend:

  1. Invest in a proper mattress and pillow as mentioned above.

  2. Get at least 30 minutes of exercise, five days a week.

  3. Try deep breathing, meditation, or other stress relief measures, especially at night before turning in.

  4. Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day.

  5. Don’t take naps unless absolutely necessary.

  6. Keep your bedroom between 60 and 67 degrees.

  7. Use blackout curtains or white noise machines if sounds or light are disrupting your sleep.

Are you having jaw pain or other symptoms of TMD? Get the facts about this condition and find out what can be done to help. Call our team at MedCenter TMJ to set up your appointment.

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