Compared to other animals who can rip through meat, bone, and even metal, the human jaw may not seem so impressive. It has been suggested that thousands of years of eating softer, cooked foods have made our jaw weaker, incapable of inflicting or enduring much significant bite forces. But our jaws aren’t weak or flimsy at all; research shows that the human mandible is actually very strong and effective, capable of exerting a bite force even greater than some primates our size, like orangutans and gibbons.

The temporomandibular joint (TMJ) is the hinge that connects the jawbone to the skull. There is one on each side of the jaw, and they are capable of sliding front and back, up and down, and moving side to side to allow for a wide range of motion. Working together with a series of ligaments, muscles, and bones, a well-aligned mandible lets us bite, chew, yawn, talk, and swallow smoothly and painlessly.

TMJ disorders happen when the jaw joints or muscles become injured, misaligned, or inflamed, which can occur for many different reasons. An injured or inflamed mandible often leads to teeth grinding; pain when chewing or talking; clicking, popping, or crackling sounds or sensations; headaches or migraines; and, in some cases, ear pain.

Mild TMJ disorders usually respond well to home remedies like taking over-the-counter pain relief medications, hot and cold therapy, using splints or mouth guards (occlusal appliances) and taking magnesium supplements. Relaxation techniques, trigger point massages, and exercises to help loosen up the jaw and relieve pressure can also help.

Here are five easy exercises to try when your jaw feels painful, tired, or tense:

Jaw relaxation and massage

This stretch-massage combo can help relax your jaw muscles and ease stiffness.

  1. Sit or stand tall, with your legs uncrossed and your feet on the floor.
  2. Rest your tongue gently on the roof of your mouth.
  3. Open and close your mouth slowly.
  4. Repeat five times.
  5. With your jaw relaxed, place 2 or 3 fingers on your jaw muscles, right below your ears.
  6. Press gently and hold for 5-10 seconds. If your jaw is tense, you should feel the muscles tighten under your fingers.
  7. Repeat as needed in other areas that feel tender or tight.

Side-to-side movements

  1. Place an object (like a clean wooden chopstick or a craft stick) between your teeth.
  2. Clench the object with your teeth and slowly move your jaw from side to side for 5-10 seconds.
  3. Repeat 3 times.
  4. Increase the thickness of the object as the exercise gets easier.

Front-to-back movements

  1. Using the same object between your teeth from the previous exercise, thrust your jaw outwards, so your bottom teeth are in front of your top teeth.
  2. Repeat 3 times.
  3. Increase the thickness of the object as the exercise gets easier.

Mouth resistance

  1. Place your thumb under your chin.
  2. Open your mouth slowly and apply light pressure with your thumb, creating a resistance to open your mouth.
  3. Hold for 5-10 seconds before closing your mouth.
  4. Repeat 3 times.

Chin tucks

  1. Sit or stand stall against a wall with your back straight.
  2. Pull your chin towards your neck, as if you were creating a “double chin.”
  3. Hold for 5 seconds.
  4. Repeat 5-10 times.