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How To Self-Treat Jaw and Face Pain During Stressful Times

Author: Donald Tanenbaum DDS MPH - Board-Certified Orofacial Pain Specialist at New York TMJ & Orofacial Pain

Date: March 28, 2020

As an orofacial pain specialist in New York City and Long Island, patients come to me because they suffer from the painful symptoms of TMJ. Most often their symptoms are a result of their stressful lives.

During the pandemic, most people have been living with an unusually high level of stress. Poor sleep and limited exercise is one reason. Also involved are continually tensed shoulders, breathing in a strained manner, and grinding and clenching your teeth at night (or during the day). The result can be headaches, pain in the neck and back, or pain in your face, teeth, and jaw, or all of them.

How To Detect A TMJ Problem

When your TMJs (your jaw joints) are in trouble, it typically shows in five ways. You may have one, a few, or all of these symptoms:

  • Facial pain
  • Clicking or popping when you open and close your mouth
  • An unexplained toothache
  • Difficulty opening your mouth
  • Unexplained headaches, particularly when you wake up

It’s easy to understand how living with the pandemic for the past few years could trigger stress-related symptoms even in people who are normally calm and positive. I’ve seen hundreds of new patients never had a TMJ problem before the pandemic and just as many who suffered from TMJ in the past.

My advice is to become hyper-aware of how stress is impacting your jaw muscles. Stop every now and then during the day and take note if you are:

  • Holding your breath
  • Bracing your jaw muscles
  • Furrowing your brow
  • Clenching your teeth
  • Biting your nails
  • Raising your shoulders

Tips: How To Treat Jaw & Face Pain During Stressful Times

Control Your Daytime Breathing

Perform these three steps if you notice you’re holding your breath or breathing more rapidly than normal:

  • Slowly breathe in through your nose deep into your core and hold it for 3 seconds. It’s easier if you place the tip of your tongue on the roof of your mouth or behind your lower front teeth as you breathe.
  • Let the air out for three seconds through your lips and pause for 3 seconds.
  • Repeat 6 times.

Note: If your nose does not let air in (quite possible during allergy season) breathe in through your mouth in a slow, controlled way with your lips barely touching. There are no absolute rules; just do the best you can.

how to relax your face, donald tanenbaum
Loosen-Up Your Face and Jaws

Notice if you hold tension in your face or brace your jaw muscles when you’re at your computer, reading, or listening to the news. If you are, use this 3-step method to relax your face and jaw:

  • Let your jaw hang limp – kind of the way your hands hang limp when you drop them at your sides.
  • Keep your lips together, teeth apart.
  • Breathe.

Do this every time you notice tension in your face or jaw.

how to stop biting nails, donald tanenbaum
Stop Biting!

Biting your lips, cheeks, nails, or cuticles, can all lead to jaw muscle fatigue and pain. The 3 tips below may help you stop:

  • Keep your lips soft (don’t purse them).
  • Keep your lips touching lightly and your teeth apart (you don’t have to keep your mouth open.
  • Let your face and jaw hang in a neutral, relaxed posture (same as step 1 above).

how to treat face and neck pain, donald tanenbaum
Soften Your Shoulders

Many people experience headaches and neck and jaw pain as a result of tense shoulders. It’s called referred pain. To keep your shoulders soft:

  • Don’t hunch up your shoulders up close to your ears. Periodically stop what you’re doing and gently push them down.
  • Try not to cross your arms.

Both tips will ease your neck tension, help your breathing, and reduce the onset or the intensity of the muscle tension that leads pain.

get up and move around, face and neck pain, computer neck, donald tanenbaum
Get Up & Move Around

It’s never a good idea to sit in one place for hours and hours even in less stressful times.

  • Every 45-minutes get up and walk around, even if it’s just to throw in a load of laundry or cook a meal.
  • If you’re experiencing severe neck tension or pain, the Feldenkrais Method® is a great way to manage it, too. It’s an easy and gentle technique that eases neck and jaw tension.

moist heat to treat face and jaw pain, donald tanenbaum
Use Moist Heat

Moist heat is a good way to treat jaw and face pain:

  • Use a wet towel, heat pack, or TMJ wrap – available in many pharmacies.
  • Apply the heat for 15-minutes
  • Then perform a gentle jaw muscle self-massage. Here’s how:
    • Open your mouth halfway.
    • With your index and middle finger massage the fleshy part of your jaw muscles in a circular motion for 10-seconds
    • Then, move in the opposite direction for 10-seconds.
    • Next, with your mouth still half-open, move your fingers to your temples right under the hairline and perform the same massage technique. If you feel muscle soreness as you massage, you’re doing it right.

Do this moist heat massage twice a day.

TENS unit for neck pain, donald tanenbaum
Purchase A TENS Unit

If your pain is severe and moist heat doesn’t help, go online and purchase a TENS unit (Nursal EMS TENS unit). Place the pads as directed on your jaw muscles (called masseters) and your large neck muscles (your trapezius) once or twice a day. Most TENS units come with simple instructions and there are many videos online with instructions.

biofreeze for neck pain, donald tanenbaum
Try Biofreeze®

Another method that works for many people is to rub Biofreeze® onto the jaw and neck muscles several times a day. Just make sure you keep it away from your eyes.

calm your mind to treat face and jaw pain, donald tanenbaum
Calm Your Mind

Yoga or meditation are great ways to keep stress from impacting your body. Online you can find hundreds of classes, many of them free. I like the app Insight Timer. Headspace, Calm, and Buddhify are also terrific apps. Find the one that fits your style and needs and try not to make it a challenge but a regular part of your day and/ir when you really need it.

tension while sleeping, donald tanenbaum
Is Your Body Tense While You Sleep? Try this:

If you wake up with headaches, facial, jaw, or teeth pain, you are problem clenching or grinding your teeth at night. Try these tips:

  • Drink warm chamomile or Sleepytime® tea before bed.
  • Try magnesium. Before you retire for the night, eat a banana or buy a magnesium supplement at the pharmacy (ask the pharmacist to recommend a good one).
  • If you’re really suffering, purchase a dental night guard at the pharmacy. The best one is made by DenTek™. However, some patients report that over-the-counter devices actually make them clench more! If that’s the case, talk to your dentist about having a custom-made nightguard made for you.

By following the above tips, you can treat your jaw and face pain at home. But note, it may take some time for your symptoms to subside. Don’t give up!

Now that life is getting back to normal it’s time we all assess our physical and emotional state and do what we need to do to feel better.

For more information about TMJ, please link here

DISCLAIMER: The advice offered in response to your questions is intended to be informational only and generic in nature. Namely, we in no way offer a definitive diagnosis or specific treatment recommendation for your particular situation. Our intent is solely educational and our responses to your actual questions serve as a springboard to discussion of a variety of dental topics that come up in a day-to-day dental practice. Any advice offered is no substitute for proper evaluation and care by a qualified professional.

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