The Effects of Jaw Tension — Is the gag on you?

Jaw tension and jaw movement
are a very interesting pivotal point
in the consideration of balanced movement and stance
but also of physiological health
and emotional well-being.

Our balance depends much upon 
where our jaw (mandible) is 
in relation to our cranium:

clenched or loosely supported
mandible forward, head back
or mandible back, head down and forward
or tighter more on one side than on the other?

or with our cranium well centered and 
moving in a well-balanced, well-supported way
by our free and gently elongated neck?

or pulling our head down and forward
as our lower jaw (mandible) pulls back and up
seemingly by itself
with no doing on our part.


and the position of our jaw reflects our physiological state and shape
our arousal state
our emotional state
our attitude
our readiness for what’s next
or our unreadiness
our “running” old memories
as our best understanding of the present
without also facing the mystery as 
this living moment.

The View from Outside

The upper jaw, part of the cranium, connects most intimately with the spine and back (dorsal aspect) of the body.

The lower jaw, the mandible, connects most intimately with the body-core and front (ventral aspect) of the body.

Miscoordination of the jaws, in biting, chewing, and rest position, causes a misfit between the front and back of the body.  That misfit causes chronic muscular tensions in the trunk and disturbances to breathing, swallowing, balance, posture and movement.  Jaws are a big deal.  I say more about that, below.

But for now, I think it’s time we looked something squarely in the face, viz.,
“the grimace”.

The grimace goes with the gag reflex,
but also with coughing,
revulsion, disgust (pulling back of the tongue),
and suppressed anger (pulling back the mandible in suppression of the urge to bite someone
or perhaps say something really rude),
all involving changes to the face, jaw position, the inside of the mouth, and throat.

And to all that, I say, “Blecch!”
But, there we are. We might as well look at it,
particularly if all that describes us.

So, the first question:

Where does our lower jaw go on such occasions?

Why, up and back.

The teeth clench,
the bones of the face compress and the face gets harder, 
the tongue pulls back in and presses against the soft palate.

The head pulls forward and down, 
the top of the head tips back  
and the neck vertebrae come forward,
closing the throat passage from behind.

It’s a response that says,
“Nothing’s going in
and something may be coming out!”

Back to the jaws.

Clenching the teeth involves the muscles of the sides of the head
pulling the lower jaw (mandible)
up against the teeth of the upper jaw (the maxilla),
so the muscles of clenching pull the sides (and therefore, top) of the head down
and the bottom of the head, up
in a big squeeze.

The face shows it.

More is happening, however.

With the closing of the throat
comes also
depression of the front of the chest —
a cave-in
and compression around the base of the head
where the spinal cord enters (foramen magnum)
producing a sensation registered, somatically,
as shrinking inward along our length
and possibly, queasiness.

The change of mouth, throat, and chest shape
impair breathing at two focal locations
the throat
and the chest.

Well, this is a jolly state to be in.

The question arises:
“What is a more wholesome resting position of the lower jaw?”

I say,
“It is hanging freely, floating beneath the upper teeth
and somewhat forward.”

The exact amount of forward depends upon the inclination of the head
but in the neutral or balanced head position,
my provisional stand is, “the incisors match up”
although it’s an error to think of the jaws having a fixed rest position.
It’s more that they have a floating equilibrium that changes with head movement and position.

When our head is more inclined (forehead up)
the lower jaw hangs back, somewhat
as in the gag reflex
or worry.

When our head is somewhat bowed (forehead forward)
our lower jaw hangs forward, somewhat.

When our head is balanced between forward and back
our lower jaw hangs freely at some floating suspension point,
our facial bones feel the downward pull of the lower jaw
and they separate, somewhat
and our face softens.

Our chest spontaneously reshapes, sternum higher
breathing fuller,

and we sit at a new balance.

Some contrast with the gag reflex, eh?

So when we are revolting against life,
when life seems revolting to us
when “our bodies” are in revolt
or we are confronted with a revolting body,
and the emotion of revulsion closes in
we clench our teeth, somewhat,
or maybe a lot. (TMJ Dysfunction/bruxism)

Repressed anger involves a pulling back of the mandible (lower jaw)
and clenching of the teeth,
the proverbial “gnashing of teeth”,
combined with a pasted-on smile
really, a grimace
not a true grin,
really the action of repressing rage and the urge
to bite someone or, as I said,
say something really rude.

An alternate cause of tightening the jaws in a held position
is pain in the jaws or teeth, whatever the cause,
which triggers the grimace response
of pulling the lower jaw back and up
or clenching the face.
Pain of sufficient intensity or duration
can cause long-term conditioning that outlasts the pain
and causes lingering pain of its own.

The same emotional and functional physiological changes occur from either cause.
It’s not an all-or-none reaction, either, but a matter of degree
according to the pain or emotional state, involved.

A person may experience manifestations of narrowed air passages:
he may snore
or have sleep apnea
or just grind his teeth at night
frightening his spouse
and nearby neighbors.

Freeing our jaws to hang more freely
enables us to feel and release accumulated grimace or pain-cringe
and enables us to move toward overall more wholesome health.
Our face shows it.


If you want to know how wholesome your own jaw position is,
take a walk and do this:

As you walk, slowly nod your head in a “yes” movement and feel how freely your lower jaw changes hanging position. 

If it doesn’t change position very slightly but freely, you have excessive jaw tension.

Instead of a jaw splint, night guard or “appliance”, develop control of your own jaw muscles by the means provided, here, so you don’t need these devices. It’s a faster (and more economical) approach to solving the problem.

articles on TMJ Dysfunction /TMD
Causes of TMJ Dysfunction

instructional video

preparation for the instructional video, above, if needed
self-relief program (video)

Lawrence Gold is a certified Clinical Somatic Educator (Hanna somatic education(R)) in practice since 1990 with two years’ experience on-staff at a community hospital wellness and rehabilitation center in California. He has experience addressing TMJ Dysfunction (TMD) and sleep apnea. Read the articles linked, above, for fit to your condition — and contact Lawrence by email, here.

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This entry was posted in bruxism, grinding teeth, jaw clenching, jaw tension, tight jaws, TMD, TMJ dysfunction. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Effects of Jaw Tension — Is the gag on you?

  1. This is great. I've also noticed that when my jaw is out of alignment that the fluids in my ears feel off and then my right nasal passage "clogs up" as well as my right ear canal, and I feel as though I am under water, with compromised hearing and smell! The jaw and face are indeed powerful in the body's equilibrium.

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