When you're hit with morning jaw pain, there is no waking up on the right side of the bed.
If your top and bottom jaw don't seamlessly fit together, you could be subconsciously shifting your jaw throughout the night in an attempt to get comfortable.
Or, you may have what Dr. Sutera calls a parafunctional habit. Similarly to biting your nails, clenching or grinding can be a physical tic that serves little purpose, but it's soothing in a psychological or neurological sense.
Either way, bruxism pain is primarily caused by muscle fatigue.
"Your jaw should be resting at night, but with bruxism, it's like your jaw is exercising for eight hours straight. Just like you would become sore after an excessive workout, so does your jaw. The muscles develop a chronic strain that feels stiff, sore, and painful to move," Dr. Sutera explains.
The good news is that parafunctional habits can be broken, but Dr. Sutera admits it's easier said than done.
"The key to reducing pain from bruxism is allowing the jaw to relax in a stable position," Dr. Sutera says.
This had me wondering if changing sleeping positions would do the trick — which just so happens to be one of the most frequent questions patients ask Dr. Sutera.
His response: "The answer is a bit of yes and a bit of no."
Dr. Sutera confirms that some very early studies indicate that sleeping on your back or side could decrease clenching and grinding, but he doesn't consider this to be a useful recommendation.
"Patients cannot comfortably control their sleeping position, and, anecdotally, many patients with bruxism report that they already sleep on their side or back," he says.
If you're hung up on the idea, Dr. Sutera notes that resting on your side allows for your pillow to support more of your jaw's weight (lessening pressure on your muscles) and helps restrict movement.
The real solution: reducing and managing your psychological stress — it's the best thing you can do for your jaw and life.
"Mental stress increases the muscular tension that fuels bruxism," Dr. Sutera adds.
He also suggests stretching your jaw by opening your mouth wide periodically throughout the day and holding for 15 seconds at a time.
Lastly, Dr. Sutera urges you to reach out to a specialist for help — especially if you're experiencing moderate or severe symptoms (other indicators of bruxism include headaches, fatigue, and ear pain) consistently for more than two weeks.
A professional should be able to easily improve any disharmony in your jaw alignment, recommend a mouth guard, replace worn-down fillings, or adjust teeth that are hitting each other excessively hard.
As for me, I'll be jaw stretching in an anxiety-reducing bubble bath.