Healthy Body

10 Dentist-Approved Jaw Exercises That Will Melt Away Facial Tension Once and for All

Zoe Weiner

Photo: Getty Images/Gravity Images
If I had to venture a guess, I'd say that most of us are probably spending zero percent of our time thinking about the muscles in our mouths. After all, "jaw day" doesn't have quite the same ring to it as "arms day" or "abs day." But given that the jaw is the strongest muscle in our bodies—and the one that's responsible for chewing and talking (read: two of life's most enjoyable activities)—you're doing yourself a disservice by ignoring it altogether. The reason? Many of us tend to hold a lot of stress in the area, which can lead to pain and discomfort. Thankfully, there are a few simple jaw exercises you can do at home to combat the issue, and make "jaw day" an easy-to-integrate part of your regular routine.

Signs you have a tight jaw

Your jaw—otherwise known as your "masseter muscle"—represents a small triangular space between your cheeks, mouth, and ear. When it's tight or not properly exercised, its close proximity to these areas can cause them to be in pain, too. "One sign that your jaw is tight and needs to be stretched is pain or discomfort not just in your jaw area, but in your teeth, ears, head, and neck," says Charles White, DDS, a dentist with 1AND1 Life. "The amount of pain can range from being tender, sore, and achy, to throbbing, and it may be more intense when chewing or opening your mouth." Other signs that things aren't quite right in the area include clicking noises, lockjaw, or limited range of motion with your mouth.

Much of the time, these symptoms can be attributed to stress—and teeth grinding and face clenching are only part of the problem. "Muscle tension is almost a reflex reaction to stress—with sudden onset stress, the muscles tense up all at once," says Inge Theron, founder of FaceGym. "Eventually, this tension may lead to discomfort and pain in certain areas of the face and neck, and if it's not addressed, could lead to puffiness in the face, deepened expression lines or lackluster complexion due to reduced circulation."

While you may be fine living with a little bit of discomfort in your face, ignoring it can lead to issues later on. "Not stretching or taking measures to reduce jaw pain can lead to TMJ, which affects the jaw muscles and nerves, neck, and back," says Brian Kantor, DDS, a cosmetic dentist at Lowenberg, Lituchy & Kantor in New York City. In other words? Doing some regular jaw exercises now can help to prevent bigger problems in the future.

Jaw exercises to try at home

Now that you know how important it is to add jaw exercises to your weekly "workout" roster, here are 10 pro-approved moves that will help you keep the area strong and tension free.

1. Resisted mouth opening

This move will help with your range of motion. Start by placing your thumb or two fingers under your chin. Open your mouth slowly, pushing up lightly on your chin with your thumb. Hold the position for three-to-six seconds, then close your mouth slowly.

2. Resisted mouth closing

Next, flip it in reverse with the opposite version of the move. Place your thumbs under your chin and your two index fingers on the ridge between your mouth and the bottom of your chin. Push down lightly on your chin as you close your mouth.

3. Tongue up

This next set of jaw exercises are all about mobility. Press your tongue to the roof of your mouth, applying as much pressure as is comfortable for you. Slowly open and close your mouth while keeping your tongue in position. Be sure to stop if you experience any pain.

4. Side-to-side jaw movement

Place an object about a quarter-of-an-inch thick (a la two tongue depressors) between your front teeth. Slowly move your jaw from side to side. Increase the thickness of the object as the exercise becomes easier.

5. Forward jaw movement

Place an object about one-fourth of an inch thick between your front teeth and move the bottom jaw forward so that the bottom teeth are in front of the top teeth. Increase the thickness of the object as the exercise becomes easier.

6. Smiling

If you're happy and you know it... try this jaw exercise (sorry). Smile as wide as you can, then open and close your mouth. Pro tip: It's probably best to do it in private to, ya know, avoid scaring any small children.

7. Manual stretch

"Manually stretching the mouth as wide as you can help to fatigue and deactivate the muscles of the jaw, thus reducing the tightness," says Dr. White. To do this, use your fingers to pull down on your lower front teeth, which will help you open your mouth to its maximum capacity.

8. Goldfish exercise

Start by placing your tongue on the roof of your mouth, and put one finger under each ear, where the hinges of your jaw meet. Slowly allow the lower jaw to fully drop down and back so that your chin meets your throat, then bring it back up to close your mouth, and repeat for three sets of six. For best results with this exercise, Theron suggests looking in a mirror while you do it so that you'll be able to tell your jaw is opening straight, which is important for keeping the area stabilized.

9. L-shape drains oil application

Treat yourself to a little DIY jaw massage with this move, which is a FaceGym classic. "Apply three to five drops of oil into your palms and knuckles, place your hands in a prayer position with the thumbs under the chin and pointer fingers at the nose, and lightly sweep hands out to the ears and down the neck," says Theron. Repeat the motion four times, then move to sweeps across your forehead for a full facial massage.

10. Hand after hand palm pull

Start by placing the heel of your hand along your jawline, then slowly slide it up and out over the muscle. Theron suggests applying medium-to-firm pressure, taking time to stop and work through any knots or "crunchies" you encounter along the way. Repeat five to eight times on one side before switching to the other.

Another set of muscles that probably isn't getting enough love? Your wrists. Check out the video below for a few tips on how to stretch 'em. 

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