Wearing a mask doesn't have to be a pain: Some tips to avoid TMJ issues

By now, you are probably getting used to wearing a mask, maybe even for several hours a day. However, you may not be accustomed to some of the aches and pains you may be experiencing since you started wearing a mask. Specifically, you may be feeling jaw pain, neck pain and headaches. And you may be wondering what you can do about it.

Wearing a mask can stress your temporomandibular joint (TMJ), which acts like a sliding hinge, connecting your jawbone to your skull. You have one joint on each side of your jaw.

You may be either tensing your jaw or holding it open to help hold your mask on. You may also find yourself clenching your jaw.

The ear loops on some masks pull down on your ears, which can put pressure on the disc situated inside the TMJ. They also tend to pull your whole head forward on your neck. This creates even more pressure on the TMJ.

The resulting muscle imbalances from these postures can alter the alignment of the TMJ that can manifest as pain with closing the mouth or during chewing, headaches and possibly neck pain.

Fortunately, there are some simple ways to manage the aches and pains that may come with wearing a mask:

Ensure a good fit

A mask that is snug across your nose and does not slip up toward your eyes will help avoid clenching or protruding your jaw to help keep it in place. Ear savers can reduce the downward pull on the ears caused by mask loops.

Assess your posture

Check to make sure you are not sticking your head too far forward. A simple chin tuck exercise, in which you pull your head straight back and attempt to make the back of your neck long, can help to reset your posture and can be done several times throughout the day.

Be aware of your resting mouth position

At rest, lips should be lightly closed, teeth should be slightly apart and the tongue should be resting lightly on the roof of your mouth. Awareness of mouth position can help avoid excessive clenching of the jaw.

Avoid added stress

If you do experience jaw pain after wearing a mask, it is important to reduce additional stressors on the TMJ. This includes gum chewing and eating very crunchy or very chewy foods. Warm or cold compresses on the irritated joints or muscles can help to relieve pain.

If you are unable to treat yourself with these tips, talk with your physician to find out if physical therapy may be right for you.

• Leslie Buchenberger is a physical therapist at Northwestern Medicine Lake Forest Hospital and Northwestern Medicine Grayslake Outpatient Center Rehab Services. For more information, contact the Northwestern Medicine Lake Forest Hospital Rehab Services department at (847) 535-7550 (Lake Forest) or (847) 535-8833 (Grayslake).

Leslie Buchenberger
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