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Dentists: This Simple Jaw Massage May Ward Off Your Tension Headaches and Migraines

A masseter massage loosens overworked muscles to prevent headaches before they start!

If you’re suffering from frequent head pain, the common (but under-the-radar trigger) may actually be tense jaw muscles. When the hardworking masseter muscle becomes sore and strained, it can send pain radiating up through your head. The good news: A simple ‘masseter massage’ is one of the best ways to relax the muscle and ease the ache. Read on to find out what causes the masseter muscles to become overworked, plus the soothing 10-minute home treatments that dramatically dial down discomfort.

What causes masseter muscle pain

Your masseter muscles are the thick muscles that run vertically from your cheek to your jawbone and function to close the mouth. Every time you chew or talk, your masseter muscles are at work, says Irina Kessler, DDS, a New York City-based dentist who treats jaw problems like temporomandibular disorder.

An illustration of the masseter muscle, which can benefit from massage

And when your masseter muscles work too hard, they can get tight and sore, which can trigger a headache. “The headache may be in the area of the temples or the masseters themselves,” says says Steven D. Bender, DDS, a diplomate of the American Board of Orofacial Pain and Clinical Associate Professor of Dentistry at Texas A&M University in Dallas, TX. “For others, it will feel like a migraine with one-sided pain that’s severe.” (Click through to learn how a tight masseter can cause a crackling sound in your ear — plus how to nix the annoying noise.)

Dr. Bender adds that if you experience a new headache or a type of headache you’ve never have never had before, you should consult your physician as soon as possible. And if you’re wondering what makes the workhorse masseter muscles get sore and stiff, here are some of the most common culprits:

1. Clenching or grinding your teeth

Often, the masseter muscles become tight and tense from chronically clenching your jaws or grinding your teeth, including when you’re sleeping. Experts call this constant gnashing bruxism, and it can trigger a headache. In fact, people with bruxism are up to 17 times more likely to develop tension headaches compared to those who don’t grind, according to research in the Journal of Oral & Facial Pain and Headache.

If you’ve ever caught yourself clamping down your jaw when you start running through your miles-long to-do list or get stuck in a traffic jam, you can probably guess the main problem that causes clenching and tight masseters: Yup, it’s stress.

Related: Masseter Botox Can Turn Off The Side Effects of Stress: Jaw Pain, Tooth Grinding + Stress Headaches

“When we’re stressed, we grind our teeth,” Dr. Kessler says. “And as a society, we’re all clenching and grinding more than we used to. It’s a habitual problem.” That’s especially true for women, who are more prone to stress-grinding than men, research in Frontiers in Neurology shows. (Click through to learn how bruxism can cause headache pain behind the eyes.)

Other lifestyle habits can factor in, too. Smoking, alcohol and caffeine consumption, as well as certain medications (like antidepressants, antiseizure medications, and medications used to treat ADHD) can also increase the risk for bruxism. The problem also tends to run in families. So if a parent or sibling was a tooth grinder, you’re more likely to be one, too.

An illustration of bruxism, or clenching and grinding teeth

2. TMJ

Some people who clench or grind their teeth might go on to develop temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorders. This is characterized by pain or tenderness in front of the ears that’s often accompanied by a clicking or grating sensation when you open and close your mouth, Dr. Kessler says. Your temporomandibular joints, which links your lower jaw to your skull, are partially controlled by your masseter muscles. “Grinding overuses the TMJ, which can lead to masseter muscle tightness,” Dr. Kessler explains. (Click through for home remedies for TMJ pain.)

3. Excessive chewing or talking

Chewing gum or habitually nibbling on your nails can also play a role in masseter pain. Even talking more than usual, like spending the day answering phones as part of your monthly volunteer shift, can work your masseters more than they’re used to and cause temporary stiffness or tightness that might trigger a headache, Dr. Bender says.

Can a masseter massage soothe your headache?

It’s not always easy to figure out if your head pain is coming from masseter muscle tightness. That’s because most people who clench and grind their teeth don’t even realize they’re doing it, in part because it often happens while we’re sleeping, Dr. Kessler says. One study in Frontiers in Neurology reported that a mere 3% of older adults were aware of their frequent teeth grinding.

There are some clues that can tip you off, though. Your tight masseter muscles might be the problem if your headaches are accompanied by:

  • Facial pain
  • Jaw stiffness or tightness, especially upon waking in the morning
  • Feeling like your jaws are tired or overworked
  • Tooth pain or sensitivity
  • Cracked or loose teeth
A woman holding her jaw due to masseter muscle pain

A dental exam can also offer some insight. Over time, frequent tooth grinding and jaw clenching can cause wear and tear on your teeth, causing them to become flat or even chipped. In fact, when patients come to Dr. Kessler’s practice complaining of jaw pain or headaches, “I take photos of their teeth to show them the evidence that they’re grinding and clenching,” she says. However, some people that brux will show very little tooth wear, Dr. Bender adds.

Related: Migraine vs Tension Headache: How to Tell the Difference + the Best Way to Speed Relief

How to ease pain with a masseter massage

When your jaw and head are throbbing and you need fast relief, a masseter massage and stretch can help. “It can be a very good first step if one is experiencing a new onset of pain in these areas,” Dr. Bender agrees.

Best of all, it’s easy to do anywhere and only takes a few minutes. Dr. Bender recommends trying this masseter massage and stretching routine 2 to 3 times per day:

1. Apply a warm compress

Moist heat helps loosen up your masseter muscles so they stretch more easily. Place the compress (a warm, damp washcloth will do the trick) to the area right in front of your ear and hold it there for 5 to 10 minutes. You can do it on one side of your jaw or both, depending where you’re feeling tightness.

2. Massage your masseter muscle

After removing the compress, place your first three fingers between your jaw and your cheek bone, in front of your ear where your jaw hinges. Applying gentle pressure, slowly rub up and down along the direction of the muscle for 3 to 4 minutes. Again, you can do this on one or both sides of your jaw.

A brunette woman with her hand on her jaw doing a masseter massage
John Sommer/Getty

3. Stretch your masseter muscle

Finally, place your pointer finger on your bottom front teeth and your thumb on your top front teeth. Gently spread your thumb and pointer finger apart to stretch your mouth open until it starts to feel tight. You should feel a stretch around your jaw, but if it hurts, back off a little. Hold for 5 seconds.

For additional masseter massage techniques, check the how-to video below.

Also smart: Setting a timer to help stop unconscious teeth clenching. “I have patients set a timer for 30 minutes and every time it goes off, they become aware if their teeth are touching,” Dr. Bender says. “They shouldn’t be, unless the person is eating, speaking or swallowing. If they are touching, I instruct the patient to blow a little puff of air out of their mouth and close their lips.” Dr. Bender suggests doing this exercise for about 30 days to help break the habit of clenching your teeth.

Consider a night guard for added relief

A masseter muscle massage is great for easing occasional jaw tightness and the headaches that come with them. But if your symptoms stem from chronic clenching or grinding, you may get added relief from using a night guard. These plastic dental guards, which are meant to be worn when you sleep, redistribute and lessen the forces when you brux during sleep. This may help decrease masseter muscle tightness when you wake.

Your dentist can make a custom night guard that’s molded to your teeth for the best fit. But if you’re hesitant to invest in one just yet (they cost around $175), Dr. Kessler recommends buying an inexpensive night guard over the counter to see if it helps. Options like the OralB Nighttime Dental Guard (Buy from Amazon, $19.48) are designed to be heated gently in the microwave before using, so the guard can mold to your teeth.

A woman holding a dental night guard

“It’s a good temporary fix to block the grinding,” Dr. Kessler says. “When patients see how it helps, they may want to make the investment of a custom night guard.” Tip: If home remedies don’t provide as much relief as you’d hoped, click through to learn how masseter botox can help relax tight jaw muscles even further to ease symptoms.

For more ways to ease headache pain:

MD Reveals the Best Remedies for Headaches That Involve Pain Behind The Eyes

Ginger Tea Can Dramatically Relieve Migraine Pain + 3 Other Migraine Self-Care Strategies

Doctor-Approved Home Remedies That Ease A Heat-Induced Headache Faster Than Meds

This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.

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