Wearing a Mask and TMJ Pain
Wearing a mask is important to prevent the spread of COVID-19 but this can potentially contribute to TMJ pain. Jaw tension and pain are overlooked side-effects from our hyper-vigilance to be safe. The function of the temporo-mandibular joint (TMJ) is often compromised under chronic stress. Grinding teeth or gripping the tongue to the roof of the mouth is a postural adaptation to being aware of our surroundings or persevering under prolonged moments of discomfort. TMJ dysfunction can manifest as painful clicking, catching and pain that radiates to the eye, cheek, teeth or neck.
Often your dentist will prescribe a mouth guard. This guard aims to reduce the effects of grinding your teeth, especially when you are asleep. However, I find in my practice that most patients will bite through their mouth guards. Conservative care via chiropractic treatment is one avenue to get support. Between treatments, it is important to understand why the behaviour of grinding your teeth exists as a means to cope with stress. I recommend the following to self-manage TMJ pain.
a) Reconnect with your breath
Tension in the glottis is found to have a direct correlation to tension in the diaphragm and the pelvic floor. When your breath is relaxed, these 3 “slings” should lengthen as you inhale and contract as you exhale. Let’s try it now: grind your teeth. What do you observe? Are you able to breathe or is your breath held? Where else in your body are you carrying your tension?
When you find yourself gripping your jaw, consciously release it. From there you can decide to release the tension in your abdomen, your hips and your pelvic floor. A helpful visual exercise to ground your breath is to imagine planting a flower just above your belly button. As you inhale, visualize the flower blooming. As you exhale, visualize the flower gently closing its petals. You can plant a flower in any area where you find tension in your body. Repeat the exercise as often as you need throughout the day.
b) Stretch your face and jaw and vocal release
When it is safe to remove your mask at home, begin the following exercises to stretch the muscles that surround your jaw and mouth such as orbicularis oris, masseter, pteryogoids and temporalis.
- Open mouth wide to make an “AH” .
- Open mouth wide with vocalization: this also releases tension from the glottis which will also influence your neck tension in a positive way. You can sing “La la la” or “AHHHHHH”
- Open mouth to vocalize or mimic “EEEEE”
- Open mouth to vocalize or mimic “OOOOOOHHHHH”
c) Neck Stretch
It is common for TMJ pain sufferers to experience neck pain and headaches. The following muscles such as the scalenes, sternocleidomastoid and upper trapezius muscles carry much tension when breath is chronically shallow due to stress.
While sitting down, place one hand on the top of your head and the other hand to hold on to the bottom of your chair. Inhale, send the hand on top of your head to the shoulder opposite to the hand holding the chair. Hold for a few seconds and exhale to return to the starting position. Switch sides and repeat.
d) Self-massage your hand and wrist
Where you find a tense jaw, you will also find a tense hand. For those working in stressful situations, this will manifest in your upper body. Again, this is posturing hyper-vigilance. When you work in front of a computer all day or use your hands to work or create, reducing tension in your hands and wrists are important for your sustainability and for influencing your jaw tension.
Clasp your hands together by intertwining your fingers. Place a small ball in between the meaty part of your thumbs called the “thenar” muscles. Roll the ball in circles with the support of both hands to self-massage the areas of your hand and wrists that hold tension. Repeat as needed.
If you experience persistent pain while eating, speaking and sleeping, it is time to see your health care provider to get a proper diagnosis and treatment plan.