If your last trip to the dentist revealed a nagging jaw-clenching habit, it could be an indicator that there’s something deeper going on. It’s a phenomenon that Anne Collins Duch, DPT, of Physical Therapy for Women in Delaware, sees often in her patients.
Jaw clenching is typically the result of stress, trauma, anger, or other feelings that cause your nervous system to dysregulate, Duch says. And while one of the most noticeable ways this dysregulation manifests is in jaw clenching, it also often leads to gripping in other parts of the body. One of the most common places? Your pelvic floor.
How are the jaw and pelvic floor connected?
“We have this actual connection developing when we are an embryo,” Duch says.
Around day 15 of our development, a tube with two depressions forms: One becomes our mouth, and the other goes on to become the openings to our digestive, urinary, and reproductive tracts, she says.
On top of this deep-seated connection made before we’re born, there’s also a fascial line that runs from the jaw all the way down to the pelvis. These fascial lines are stretches of connective tissue that link up different muscles throughout the body.
How can I tell if I’m clenching my pelvic floor?
It’s pretty easy to tell if you’re clenching your jaw—you’ll likely wake up with a sore, stiff jaw, and might get headaches easily. (And if you for some reason don’t notice it, your dentist definitely will.) But it can be trickier to identify when you’re gripping your pelvic floor. One telltale sign that someone’s pelvic floor is too tight is if they try to do a Kegel and they can’t feel anything, Duch says.
“They actually don’t feel their muscles contracting because they’re already contracted,” she explains.
Leaking urine can also be an indicator that your pelvic floor is overactive. Although these symptoms are often mistaken for a weak pelvic floor, Duch says that in some cases, it’s actually because the muscles are overly engaged. For instance, in order to hold our urine in when we jump, sneeze, laugh, or cough, our muscles need to be able to contract. But if we’re gripping our pelvic floor muscles all the time, they can’t contract effectively when we need them too.
This means that jaw clenchers might want to ease up on the Kegels, Duch says. “Lots of folks think they should be doing tons of Kegel contractions when in actuality, so many are walking around with an overactive pelvic floor,” she says. If you’re a jaw clencher, Duch recommends instead focusing on breathwork that will help expand and relax your pelvic floor muscles.
Try these exercises to relax *both* your jaw and your pelvic floor
The good news is that we can use this connection between our jaw and pelvic floor to our advantage. The following exercise can help you release tension in both your jaw and your pelvic floor. To be sure it’s super effective, focus on taking big, slow breaths. Diaphragmatic breathing puts downward pressure on your pelvic floor, coaxing those muscles to release.
Gently draw your lips together and blow up your cheeks.
Keeping your eyes gazing forward, slowly turn your head to one side, then come back to center. Repeat on the other side, your eyes looking straight ahead the whole time. Inhale and exhale through your nose, all while keeping your cheeks puffed out.
Repeat three to five times, then after your last breath, let your cheeks go slack.
Keep your lips together, and place your tongue between your top and bottom teeth.
Feel your jaw elongate and take three to five more breaths.
Repeat this three times a day, or as needed.
In addition to the puffy cheeks exercise, you can also try blowing raspberries or humming for 10 seconds at a time to release jaw tension, Duch says. She suggests giving one of these exercises a try every time you wash your hands to continually keep those muscles relaxed throughout the day.