alt=a woman clenching her teeth experiences jaw pain.

Chronic Clencher

Last updated: September 2022

"You're a chronic clencher," the massage therapist said to me while pressing her fingers into my tender jaw muscles. Wincing from the pain, I agreed, "Yes, I am."

Even though I knew it was good to get that tense, ropey, knotted-up pain massaged out of me, the therapist hit some majorly sore points, which sent pain shooting up into various areas of my head. Of course, I was grateful for the massage and wished I could have one every day.

The benefits of massage therapy

I had recently discovered a holistic healing center in Minneapolis called "Pathways" which was recommended to me by my integrative pain management doctor. All of the services here are free for people who struggle with chronic pain, chronic illness, and other conditions. For years I've lamented how insurance companies should cover therapeutic or medical massage, as they often do for acupuncture and chiropractic care.

Massage has drastically helped me with RA and chronic pain, so it's frustrating that insurance won't cover it. I'm very thankful to be registered with this center now. However, many of their appointments fill up fast, especially for massage and acupuncture.

My pain causes me more pain

I've suffered from chronic and debilitating tension headaches and jaw pain (TMJ) for many years. I began getting headaches about a year after I was diagnosed with RA. Is there a connection between the two? I think so. When I was first diagnosed, my RA was wildly out of control: my feet and hands especially were unbearably swollen and on fire with pain. I could hardly use my hands and fingers to do anything and had trouble simply walking.

My theory (and doctors and physical therapists have agreed) is that I began unconsciously tensing up my muscles- especially my head, neck, shoulders, and jaw- to compensate for my RA pain. Stress was and still is another factor that increases my head and jaw pain, as well as RA pain and symptoms. It's a vicious circle of pain causing pain and also reacting to it.

Jaw clenching and headaches

But let's get back to my clenching problem. I know a big reason for my headaches is that I clench my teeth often (with some grinding at night). I've had physical therapy for this and my headaches several times over the years. Certain exercises help. However, I forget to do them until I'm in a full-blown flare-up, and I want to chop my head off to get relief. I still need to get a special mouthguard to wear while sleeping. However, I would prefer one of the custom-made ones that cost hundreds of dollars. I still need to call my insurance company to find out if they'll cover that or not.

My entire body tenses up from RA pain

It's not just my teeth I clench, but also my neck, shoulders, and at times, my entire body. I had never had this clenching problem before I got RA and had to deal with joint pain daily. But it makes sense because living with RA and pain is incredibly stressful--emotionally and physically. It seems natural to me that my body's reaction would be to tense itself up into knots.

Natural or not, having to deal and struggle with chronic head and jaw pain on top of RA pain is incredibly upsetting, frustrating, and doesn't seem very fair. RA pain is bad enough, never mind a throbbing, shooting headache that doesn't go away unless I'm asleep. My action plan is to finally sort out getting a mouth guard to help with the teeth/jaw clenching and grinding, get back to doing my exercises, and probably go to physical therapy again. I also hope to continue getting massages at Pathways and getting acupuncture treatment.

I haven't talked much about my years of head and jaw pain with other RA friends, but I wonder if headaches are a common "side effect" of RA. I can't be the only one, right? Who else out there is a "chronic clencher?"

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