Wearing a mask all day is routine for some people, including dentists and surgeons. It’s just part of their jobs and they’re used to it. For everyone else wearing a mask for all (or most) of the day is completely unnatural. And, what’s going on under our masks can cause many problems – because wearing a mask can cause TMJ symptoms to emerge.
Without even realizing it, you may be pressing your lips together in a pursed position or clenching your teeth under your mask. These are normal human reactions to fear, anxiety, and worry. But, when the jaw and facial muscles in this contracted position for an extended length of time, they become overworked. And, like any other muscle in your body, when jaw and facial muscles become overworked, lactic acid accumulates. That irritates the nerve fibers running through the overworked muscles. The result is pain. Sometimes, “really bad pain.”
4 Ways to Reduce (or Avoid) TMJ Symptoms While Wearing a Mask
Most of us are required to wear a mask in public these days. As a board-certified orofacial pain specialist, I’m have been seeing patients whose previous symptoms are getting worse, people whose previously-resolved symptoms have returned, and many people who never had TMJ problems in their lives. Here a few of the tips I give them to help reduce their TMJ pain and/or minimize the potential for pain to emerge:
- Avoid Chin-Pull
Most masks extend under the chin, and that’s a good thing. If you wear a homemade or surgical mask you’re probably pretty comfortable because it fits loosely. But, if you wear an N95 or KN95 mask, it fits tighter and applies tension to your chin that pulls your jaw upwards. Many of us are unconsciously and repeatedly pushing down on our chin attempting to move the mask away and release the tension. As a consequence, we experience fatigued and sore muscles. I recommend only wearing tight N95 or KN 95 masks if you’re out shopping, plan to be in a crowded area with poor ventilation, are using public transportation, or will be in a public space with other people for a sustained period of time. Because wearing a mask can cause TMJ symptoms, I recommend your use a less-restricting mask when you’re not in a risky environment.
- Stop Using Ear Loops
Earloops that pull and tug on your ears are another reason why wearing a mask can cause TMJ symptoms. They can cause pain that can be felt from your ears, across your jaw joints, and into your face – all within a short period of time. Some people even get headaches that extend from their ears into their temples. The culprit is the trigeminal nerve. The trigeminal nerve (visible in the diagram above) is responsible for face and jaw sensations and influences the muscles that allow you to move your jaw. When your mask’s ear loops are constantly tugging, the trigeminal nerve can become excessively excited, resulting in pain and tension in your jaw muscles. A great solution to this problem is ear savers. Ear savers allow you to ditch earloops and eliminate the maddening pulling they can cause. If you’re crafty, you can make them yourself – there are lots of instructional videos on YouTube). For the rest of us, it’s easy to find them online. In fact, Etsy has a huge selection of ear savers and they are very affordable.
- Keep Your Neck Muscles Loose
Another reason that wearing a mask can cause TMJ symptoms involves your neck. Your mask can cause you to change your normal head position. That can have a negative impact on your neck muscles. Several of my patients, after sometimes just a few hours of mask-wearing, experience stiff and aching neck muscles. Their tense neck muscles ultimately lead to jaw pain and sometimes limited jaw motion – typical symptoms of TMJ. If your neck is stiff and sore, check out Bob and Brad’s neck exercises on YouTube. Bob Schrupp and Brad Heineck are physical therapists. They offer advice, tips, and information on how to stay healthy, fit, and pain-free. (They’re very entertaining, too).
- Smile! There’s a pretty good chance that while your face is covered by a mask, you don’t smile very much. Plus, if you have your lips pursed and your teeth clenched under your mask, there’s a good possibility that you’re holding your breath, too.
Try to keep a smile on your face when your mask is on. This may seem ridiculous because no one can see your mouth, but try to keep your lips loose and your teeth apart as much as possible. Concentrate on your breath now and then, which also helps your jaw to relax.
It’s True: Wearing A Mask Can Cause TMJ Symptoms
There’s no question we live in very stressful times and, for most people, wearing a mask feels unnatural. If you already have TMJ symptoms or want to avoid them, please try some of the tips in this post. You can be safe and comfortable at the same time.