Jaw dropping

How releasing tension in the jaw can bring relaxation to the whole body – and mind

Illustration: Irina Perju
Words: Stephanie Lam

Hunching over a screen can cause stiff shoulders and tension headaches. If you’ve experienced these, it’s possible that the root of your problem doesn’t lie where you think it does. In fact, many tension issues can be released with a gentle, soothing touch on an area of your body rarely considered: your jaw.

Why a relaxed jaw matters

The jaw connects with both the head and the shoulders, via the temporomandibular joints, muscles, tendons and nerves. Via the fascia, the connective tissue that runs through the whole body, the jaw is also linked to the pelvis and hips. If your hips are tight, there’s a good chance your jaw will be too, and vice versa.
Katie Light, a holistic practitioner from Brighton on the south coast of England, is passionate about easing problems in the jaw. ‘It’s an essential part of everything we do on a daily basis: talk, chew, laugh, speak,’ she says. ‘It’s really important to keep this amazing part of us free.’

Do you have a tight jaw?

Pay attention to your own jaw now. What’s its default position – tensed, or relaxed? If it’s tight, you could have been unconsciously holding stress in that area for years. Katie says a tight jaw can be caused by ‘grinding the teeth [see Breathe, issue 61], clenching the teeth, holding the breath, dental work… Even just having the mouth open for an hour [during dental work] can cause trauma in the jaw.’

Emotional stress can be a cause. ‘We might struggle to communicate our thoughts and feelings verbally,’ says Katie, which means that ‘the jaw can hold onto unspoken emotions… if you’re not able to verbalise and you’re angry, then you’re going to hold it here.’ Being stuck on high alert also means that your breath will be shallow – and your jaw will notice the difference.

What is TMD?

If you do clench your jaw, any tightness you feel could be temporomandibular joint disorder, or TMD, which affects around 10 per cent of the population. The temporomandibular joint is in front of the lowest part of the ear. So, if you notice a locked jaw, a clicking jaw – or, says Katie, clicking in the throat, it might be worth investigating.

A clicking jaw might seem less pressing than headaches or stiff shoulders, but because of the interconnectedness of all three areas, TMD – or even plain tightness – may be the cause of more overt health problems. Issues such as dizziness and vertigo can also be caused by a poorly aligned jaw and, according to Katie, TMD or a tight jaw can exacerbate already existing mental health issues.

What is craniosacral therapy (CST)?

TMD is well-known in the dental world. If you visit a dentist, they may recommend wearing a mouth guard at night to help realign your jaw and prevent teeth grinding. If that doesn’t work, surgery is an option.

Having lived with TMD for years, I tried wearing a mouth guard, but found it made little difference. Reluctant to undergo surgery, I looked for answers elsewhere. That search led me to Katie Light, and a practice that Katie says produces ‘significant transformation, through a very light touch’. The practice is known as craniosacral therapy (CST), where you’ll feel hands gently holding or moving areas of your body. The aim is to release tension, however that shows up, and it can be used for many health issues. ‘It opens up space in the body for the cranial fluid to flow,’ says Katie.

CST works on the fascia, the body’s connective tissue. This only needs a light touch, because CST’s aim is to get all the systems of the body to work smoothly. Katie likens it to taking pebbles out of the stream to clear the flow of water. If your body is holding on to trauma, she says, CST helps to get to those parts. And if this manifests as tightness, when you release it ‘you get some freedom and some space, and super-deep relaxation’.

How does CST work?

At a base level, this gentle therapy enables the body to move out of hypervigilance (the sympathetic nervous system) and into the parasympathetic – or rest-and-digest – system, which is useful for most people who are on high alert or stressed. While large-scale research is still needed to test its efficacy, anecdotal evidence suggests it’s effective in pain relief and relaxation.

Katie, who was already using facials, breathwork and coaching, was drawn to CST, to help clients resolve their jaw issues. She’s particularly interested in what she calls ‘mouth work’. This involves going inside the mouth to relax tension in the jaw, which then releases stress throughout the rest of the body.

It’s an intimate experience, and one she tends to advise only after clients have got to know and trust her. It won’t be for everyone and may be contraindicated for some, but using CST in this way can have a profound effect on the whole body. ‘I’ve seen some amazing transformations,’ she says.

And with this aim in mind, I decide that nothing ventured is nothing gained, and end up lying on Katie’s massage couch with her (gloved) fingers inside my mouth. She works around several areas, gently probing the inside of my cheek and upper palate. It feels so gentle that at first I’m not sure it’s going to make any difference, yet as she presses my inner left cheek, I sense my whole jaw relaxing and almost drop off to sleep. Momentarily, my jaw stops clicking, which feels more phenomenal than it sounds.

‘In my experience, I’d say [it takes] a couple of sessions for the jaw to release,’ says Katie. However, that depends if her client has TMD, and the severity of tension in that area: ‘If it’s years of holding, it will probably take longer than that.’ She’s keen to emphasise that she wouldn’t usually use mouth work on the first session. She says that you can ease jaw stiffness by having someone work on the outside of the jaw, neck and head, with no need to go inwards until you’re ready. You can also try regular self-massage (see the guide below) and other techniques to relax your body, like yoga or breathing exercises.

Jaw release for the whole body

Those who do decide to try CST might find that they notice relief in areas other than the jaw. Katie says that’s because of the connectivity between different areas of the body: ‘When the jaw releases, the hip releases, or when the hips release, sometimes the jaw can release.’ CST also involves listening to the client’s bodily wisdom, which can help indicate which areas need to be worked on. It’s why, although you might go to a therapist for one area of tension, they may be drawn to another. To soothe your jaw, you may also find your solar plexus or the back of your head being held.

And the release may not be just physical. ‘As we loosen and open up the areas of the mouth, head, neck and throat, the throat chakra is able to open and release, which allows for improved expression and communication,’ says Katie. This might mean that the next time you’re triggered into staying quiet, you’ll be able to speak up instead. ‘Sometimes, you don’t need to know how or why, but it will just all unwind and untangle itself.’

For more about Katie’s practice, visit, or follow her on Instagram @katielightwellness

Self-massage for the jaw

  • Climb into bed and work your fingertips or knuckles into both sides of the masseter muscle, one of the primary muscles for chewing food.
  • Use facial oil if you wish, then start with the jaw, and continue up around the back of the ears on the bone, including the temples.
  • Then gently push your fingertips into the scalp, just beyond the hairline at the forehead, and rock it back and forth.
  • The interconnectedness of the muscles means that all these actions will help to release the jaw.

Please ensure that any practitioner is suitably qualified and trained in CST techniques, including mouth work, at an advanced level.

If you’re in the UK, Katie suggests finding a qualified practitioner via

You can read more articles about wellbeing in the latest issue of Breathe magazine.