Sleep Issues Can Mean TMJ Issues

If you’re clenching or grinding your teeth at night, it’s crucial to know why, especially to find out if you have sleep apnea, a symptom of teeth grinding. There are many techniques to prevent TMJ issues.

Let me start out by sharing my own incident with stress, sleep, and TMJ symptoms. When I was in my twenties, I was working as a hygienist and juggling classes to achieve my bachelors degree. One day, after a morning shift at work, and before classes, I went home to crash for a nap. I was exhausted and completely overwhelmed with paying the bills while trying to keep up with straight A’s at school.

Suddenly, startled from a deep sleep, I heard what I thought was house painters scraping paint off the side of my rental. When I became more alert, I realized it was me grinding my two eye teeth together, the loud outrageous sound which woke me up, was me. Yikes! No wonder why my jaw was sore.

Clenching or Grinding (Bruxism)

Needless to say, if you are not relaxed when you sleep, you could be prone to clenching or grinding your teeth (bruxism). Falling asleep relaxed will help you sleep through the night, without being woken up with anxious thoughts, or in my case, grinding your teeth away. When you clench or grind your teeth at night, your temporomandibular joint (TMJ) becomes strained.

In order for your TMJ to be in a neutral and relaxed position, your teeth must be apart and your mandible slightly dropped. A mantra I repeat if I feel myself tensing up day or night is, “Lips together, teeth apart.” If a dental professional has told you you’re bruxing but you’re unaware of it, try taking some deep breaths and repeat the above mantra as you’re falling asleep and you’ll catch yourself during the night if your teeth touch together. See my blog, When Your Dentist Recomends a Night Guard. Use relaxation techniques before bed, such as writing notes, drinking herbal tea, meditation, or peaceful music, and not only will your TMJ relax but your whole body.

Proper Sleep Position to Prevent TMJ Issues

Your sleep position is crucial to a relaxing sleep and to releasing tension from your TMJ. It is extremely important your TMJ has no pressure on it while sleeping, therefore, stomach sleeping is not recommended. Realize, your TMJ is the only double hinged joint in the body, and if you put force on one side, it will torque it.

If you sleep on your side, you do not ever want to put your hands or fist under your TMJ or jam them into your mandible. The way to keep your hands from your face is to first make sure your head is on the pillow and your chin is floating off the edge of it. Your shoulder position is very important because if your shoulders are twisted too far back it will force your arms closer to you which forces your hands into your face. So, play with your shoulder position forward to the point where your arms are jetted out away from you. I always sleep with a pillow between my legs, which encourages side-sleeping alignment. Before you plop in bed at night, get comfortable into proper body alignment and take the pressure of your TMJ.

Proper sleep position for side sleeper

I couldn’t sleep without my knee pillow. Besides relieving my TMJ, I wake with a happy back. You can try Cushy Form knee pillow.

Click on image to purchase pillow

Sleep Apnea can Cause Bruxism

Lastly, but most important, as this could be life saving, is the possibility of sleep apnea causing your bruxism. It is classic for a dentist to quickly diagnose you’re bruxing and immediately tell you the treatment is a nightguard. Whoa, slow down, where is the discussion to what is causing your clenching or grinding? Is it stress, sleep position, or worse, sleep apnea, and perhaps a combination of all three?

One way to suspect sleep apnea is if you snore. At first, this threw me as a hygienist because I assumed if you snored your mouth hung open all night. Now, I’m aware, when you snore, you can stop breathing, and the body’s natural response is to force your teeth together to open your airway. Hence, with sleep apnea, you alternate between snoring with an open mouth to clenching or grinding in order to breath. It is crucial to know the cause of your TMJ issue before treating it!

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Author: Cari

Cari has been a practicing dental hygienist for over 30 years. She received her degree with honors and was selected for a rare internship at Eastman Dental School, Rochester, NY. She then went on to receive a BS in Social Work from Nazareth College, cum laude. She has practiced in a variety of offices in Santa Fe for almost 25 years, with dental hygiene experience that has spanned from public health to holistic private practice, to specializing in dental phobic patients. Her commitment to research with a life-long desire to learn is combined with her genuine drive to provide patients with a whole health knowledge base. Cari also brings her experience as a published writer to her role as an oral health blogger. She has written blogs and web pages for Beyond Borders Dental in her role as Director of Dental Relations and Education.

2 thoughts on “Sleep Issues Can Mean TMJ Issues”

  1. Hello Cari
    What a great blog, I have always wondered about TMJ and if it was the cause of my migraines. Do you know if there is a specific test that can be done by a dentist to determine if TMJ is the culprit? I will try your tips and see if that has a positive effect on my headaches.
    Many thanks again

    1. Hi Maria,
      I’m so sorry you experience migraines as I know how painful they can be and they can really knock you out. Well, it isn’t so much your “TMJ” that can cause migraines, but a TMJ Disorder sure could. Yes, a dentist could help you identify if you are bruxing, and if your migraines are connected to it or anything else dental. I sure would consult with a dentist, and if it isn’t connected to bruxing or a TMJ disorder, you can at least eliminate it as a cause. Good luck and feel better, Cari

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