As a TMJ doctor in New York City and Long Island, my patients come to me because of jaw and face pain, headaches, neck pain, and more. These symptoms are a result of having stressful lives.
During the recent pandemic, most of us were dealing with an unusually high level of stress. You may have slept poorly, exercised less, continually tensed your shoulders, breathed in a strained manner, or ground and clench your teeth at night or during the day. All of this may have led to headaches, pain in your neck and back, or the emergence of pain in your face, teeth, and jaw.
Have Your Developed A TMJ Problem?
If your face and teeth are aching or if your jaw muscles feel tight or painful, if it’s hard to open your mouth, there’s a good chance you have a TMJ problem. It’s easy to understand how this could have been triggered by the stress of living through the pandemic for over a year. For many, this is the first time they’ve had symptoms, but people who had them in the past are suffering again now.
It’s time to become hyper-aware of how stress behaviors are impacting your muscles. If you’re holding your breath, bracing your jaw muscles, furrowing your brow, clenching your teeth, biting your nails, raising your shoulders, your muscles are stressed. And, sitting at a computer for more hours than usual causes neck muscles to become sore which can escalates into intense jaw pain, neck pain, or headaches.
How To Treat Jaw and Face Pain During Stressful Times
Here are some great tips to help you pay more attention to your body and take steps to mitigate the impact of stress:
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 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.
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.
Do this every time you notice tension in your face or jaw.
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 (do not 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).
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 & Move Around
It’s never a good idea to sit 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.
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 half-way.
- 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.
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 unites come with simple instructions and there are many videos online with instructions.
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
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.
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 night guard 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.
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