photography by PHUONG NGUYEN
Ever notice how on certain mornings your body wakes up super sore? Maybe you have a stiff neck, extra tension in your jaw, or debilitating back and shoulder pain. Sure, it could be from the gym or other strenuous activities, but more often than not, this discomfort is actually caused in your sleep, and by something you probably don’t even know you’re doing.
If this sounds like you, you might be surprised by the culprit. To help solve the mystery, we chatted with posturology and auriculotherapy specialist Rafael Torres. Read on to hear his tips.
What is this mysterious sleep habit that’s wreaking havoc on your entire body? If you’re an open-mouth sleeper, a teeth grinder, or clencher—there’s your answer.
“A few things happen when you sleep with your mouth open,” says Torres. “One, your breathing becomes restricted because your tongue slides back and blocks your airway. And two, when this happens, you may start clenching, swallowing, or grinding to open up the airway. This can eventually lead to TMJ and other back and shoulder issues.”
How to Recognize the Symptoms
If you’re truly not sure whether or not you’re an open-mouth breather, here are some indicators. “Open-mouth sleepers may find themselves suffering from major postural imbalances,” says Torres. “These posture shifts then lead to pain and tightness throughout the body—particularly in the lower back, neck, and shoulders, as well as tension headaches. These symptoms are either chronic or at their strongest first thing in the morning before getting out of bed.” Another way to know? If you wake up with serious dry mouth.
What to Do
First, it’s important to look at why some people sleep with their mouths open in the first place. According to Torres, the list of reasons is determined on a case-by-case basis but not limited to: a deviated septum, narrow nostrils, swollen tonsils or glands, allergies, poor tongue resting posture, and sleeping on your back.
And while it seems like surgery or needles might be the only way to solve this habit and relieve jaw tension, think again. “Sometimes people resort to Botox to relax jaw muscles, and it can work, but at the end of the day what needs to be addressed is why the person is having the jaw disturbance,” says Torres.
He uses something called auriculotherapy. ”Auriculotherapy stimulates specific points of the ear, which result in a neurological response. As soon as the points get hit, muscles start relaxing and symptoms start diminishing almost instantly,” he says. “You’ll almost instantly feel a decrease in pain and an increase in flexibility.”
Besides auriculotherapy, which only a handful of people in the U.S. practice, Torres also recommends seeing an orofacial myologist. “A huge reason why people sleep with their mouths open is because their tongue may not be working correctly. A specialist can check to see how it is moving and prescribe tongue exercises,” he says.
Additionally, there are small things you can do at home to help, such as sleeping on your side, placing a thin piece of tape down the center of your lips to keep them closed and help train them to stay together while you sleep, and magnesium supplements. Also, work on your tongue position throughout the day and before bed.
“Proper resting tongue position is when your tongue is resting on the roof of your mouth, with your teeth slightly apart and lips are together without strain,” says Torres. And lastly, try a nasal strip or clearing your nose before bed to prevent stuffiness.