Over the last couple of months, we have been seeing an uptick in patients that are experiencing jaw pain. That got me thinking, “What’s changed over the last few months that could be causing more jaw pain?” I mean, so far 2020 has been a pretty standard, relaxed year. No bumps in the road that I can think of. Okay, obviously not!
COVID has pretty much-impacted everyone’s life in a significant way. And if you are someone that has ever had jaw pain, also called TMJ pain, then you know that stress can increase pain in your jaw (all you teeth grinders and jaw clenchers, I’m talking to you!). To go along with the increased stress of the year, we are also all wearing masks. We all know that mask-wearing is essential to help decrease the spread of COVID-19, but it’s also important for us to understand how this can be contributing to TMJ problems so that we can wear our masks comfortably!
How does a mask contribute to jaw pain?
There are a few different ways that wearing a mask can contribute to jaw pain:
1. First, it might prompt us to breathe through our mouths instead of our nose. At rest, we should mainly be breathing through our nose because it does a better job of filtering and warming the air that we are breathing in and allows our jaw to stay in a better resting position. When we breathe through our mouth the jaw is held slightly open and this can cause tension to develop in the muscles around the jaw.
2. Talking with a mask can be difficult depending on how the mask fits. If the mask isn’t fitting well around our face it can tend to slip up or down while we are talking. To keep the mask from shifting we might change the way that we move our jaw while we are talking and this can create tension in the muscles that move our jaw.
3. Masks with straps that go behind the ears can cause pain because of excessive pressure and tension. This pain can then refer forward towards the jaw and lead to increased tension in the muscles around the jaw.
How can I decrease my pain if I have to wear a mask?
Masks will likely be around for a while, but that doesn’t mean that your jaw pain has to be!
• Make sure that the mask you are wearing fits well. Masks shouldn’t be so tight against your face that your nose is being compressed, because this will immediately make you switch to mouth breathing. Masks with a nose piece that can be molded around the bridge of your nose are helpful because they tend to keep the mask in place while you are talking so you aren’t constantly shifting your jaw around to keep it from slipping out of place. You can also try a mask that ties around the back of your head so that you don’t have too much pressure behind your ears.
• Make sure you are breathing through your nose. Ideal breathing posture is to have the tongue resting on the roof of the mouth, just behind the teeth with our lips closed, breathing in and out through our nose
• Physical Therapy! A physical therapist will perform a thorough evaluation to identify the causes of jaw pain and can then use manual therapy techniques to reduce pain and relieve tension in the muscles of the jaw and will give you exercises to help improve jaw function and keep your pain away!