Treating TMJ Issues: you can learn to stop clenching

In every TMJ consultation that I do, I ask about clenching. I consider it to be an important factor that contributes to jaw tension, which I treat with manual therapy.

Clenching is a habit that people do unconsciously, and most of the people who come to me for TMJ relief consultations and sessions clench and/or grind their teeth, which is known as bruxism.

How does this habit start?

Common sense tells me that clenching comes from stress, and it seems likely to be a response that represses free speech.

Men do it, women do it, teens do it, even young children do it.

We’ve probably all experienced an authority figure (parent, teacher, boss, partner, etc.) who doesn’t want to hear what we have to say and who has the power to shut us down — unless we are willing to experience the consequences…which could be getting fired, isolation, abuse, punishment, abandonment, or violence.

We still think the thoughts, we still feel the emotions, but now we also have to shut up and hold our feelings/thoughts in, unexpressed. We feel threatened and want to feel safe. This creates even more stress.

We may learn that clenching our teeth keeps us safe…but at a cost to our own well-being.

(If you want to get better at interpersonal communication, I recommend Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication approach.)

We have to use our jaw muscles to clench, and overuse creates chronic tension in these muscles.

The pressure of clenching can also cause teeth to crack and break. The dental solution is to replace broken teeth with crowns or implants. These are expensive procedures requiring a lot of time in the dental chair with your mouth wide open, which is tough on already chronically tense jaw muscles.

So, what’s the alternative?

I teach what I call Relaxed Resting Mouth Position, aka RRMP. It’s very simple:

  • Close your lips and breathe through your nose.
  • Keep your teeth slightly apart.
  • Curl your tongue up so that the tip touches your upper palate behind your front teeth.

If you clench, try it now and notice what you notice. What if this could become your new default relaxed resting mouth position?

You can teach yourself to do this when you’re not otherwise using your mouth: when you’re not talking, eating, drinking, singing, kissing, sticking your tongue out, etc.

Any time you want to change a habit, first you need to become more conscious of your behavior. Then you need a healthier alternative to perform.

Repetition replaces bad habits with good habits. Enough repetition rewires your neurology.

How can I learn RRMP?

The way I teach it in my office (and now online) is to give people a few coffee stir sticks, about 7 of them.

They can put one between their teeth, either flat or on edge, so their teeth are slightly apart, and then close their lips and put their tongue tip on the roof of the mouth. Not hard at all, just to get a feel for RRMP.

I then advise them to place the coffee stir sticks in the places they habituate: for instance, on the bathroom counter, bedside table, kitchen counter, desk, dashboard, coffee table, by the remote.

You can go to a coffee shop (buy a drink, please), take a few, and do this yourself.

Be sure to tell the neat freaks in your household to leave them where they are!

Here’s where the change happens!

The most important part of changing this habit is that whenever you spot one of these coffee stir sticks — and they will get your attention because they look like clutter — ask yourself, ”What am I doing with my mouth?”

This makes you more conscious of your clenching habit.

If you find yourself clenching, immediately switch to Relaxed Resting Mouth Position. Tell yourself how much you look forward to this becoming your new default mouth position!

Do this again the next time you notice a coffee stir stick. And the next, and the next, and the next.

No one knows just how many repetitions it will take for RRMP to become your new default. It may take 5 times a day for 3 weeks, or more, or less.

But with repetition, increasingly you will find that your mouth is already in RRMP when you see a coffee stir stick and notice what you’re doing with your mouth.

When you’re satisfied that RRMP has become your new default mouth position, you can put the coffee stir sticks away.

Why tongue on the roof of the mouth?

This appears to come from Eastern medicine and practices. I haven’t found anything in Western medicine about it.

In Taoist practices, the two most important meridians regulating the flow of energy in the body are located on our midlines.

The conception vessel runs along your midline on the front of your body, and the governing vessel runs along your midline on the back of your body and comes over the top of your head.

These meridians meet when you place your tongue on the roof of your mouth.

This practice connects these meridians, balancing yin and yang energies, resulting in a state of calm alertness.

It’s also used in meditation, qi gong, tai chi, kung fu, 4-7-8 breathing, kundalini yoga, and probably more.

My services

I offer a standalone 30-minute TMJ Consultation that can be done in person or on Zoom for $30.

I also offer a TMJ Consultation + TMJ Relief session, 120 minutes for $165, which must be done in person.

New: I’m offering a 60-minute Self-Treatment for TMJ Issues session on Zoom in which we do the consultation and I teach you how to work on your TMJ issues for $135. You get a video to use when you practice by yourself.