It has been several months since we started wearing masks more often to protect ourselves and the safety of others. Although masks play an essential role in reducing the spread of COVID-19, they are something new for our bodies to learn and adjust to. Here at Life’s Work Physical Therapy, we have noticed an increase in patients reporting neck pain, jaw pain, and headaches and it may just be that mask wearing is contributing to some or all of these complaints!

Here are a few tips to improve your quality of your life while wearing a mask:

  1. Ensure your mask fits well

If your mask is constantly sliding off of your face, you may be clenching certain jaw or facial muscles to try to hold it up.  Habitual clenching of these muscles can lead to soreness, nighttime clenching and teeth grinding, and even headaches.  Masks that have a wire on the top grip around your nose, which helps them stay in place.  Helpful hint: to help with glasses fogging up, rest your glasses frames over the wire at the top of your mask! This creates a firmer seal at the top of the mask and won’t let your breath escape the top of the mask as easily.

Also, be sure to vary the types of straps on the masks you use. It’s common for masks to have loops that rest behind your ears, but you also have many nerves and blood vessels that run near your ears that may be getting tugged by your mask, contributing to headaches and pain. Alternate masks which have behind-the-ear loops and those that tie around the back of your head to give your ears a break.  There are even mask extenders you can purchase that wrap around your head for a nice snug fit without the pull on your ears! (Link here: https://www.amazon.com/MIAODAM-Adjustable-Extension-Extending-Protectors/dp/B0874Q4J3Y/ref=sr_1_5?dchild=1&keywords=mask+hook&qid=1603383063&sr=8-5)

  • Perform exercises that can help with pain and tension

Many of us are clenching our jaw and neck muscles more often these days due to stress, wearing masks, and for a lot of people sitting more often at a less ergonomic work station at home.

The following are helpful exercises and stretches to relieve a tired jaw, painful neck, or tense muscles:

            -Controlled jaw opening

            Rest your tongue on the roof your mouth behind your front teeth.  Open your mouth as wide as you can while keeping your tongue on the roof of your mouth and hold for 3-5 seconds. Repeat 10 times every 2-3 hours daily to stretch your jaw in a controlled manner.

            -Chin tucks

            To correct your posture and offload tired muscles on your neck and jaw, pretend there is a stick going through your ears and swivel your chin down toward your chest bone and hold for 5 seconds. Perform every 2-3 hours. Also try this if you are sitting and feel neck pain to see if performing this simple chin tuck eases your pain!

            -Jaw muscle self-massage

            It’s really easy to massage the muscles of your face and jaw to ease tension! This is great to do if your jaw feels tight when you wake up in the morning, after getting in the car when you’ve been wearing a mask for a prolonged period of time, or even after a stressful meeting.  You can do one side at a time or both sides at once with both hands.  Make a loose closed fist and use your knuckles to gently rub the sides of your head above your ear. Make 10 small circles.

Next, drag your thumbs down from your temples to the back of your jaw bone in front of your ears 10 times.

Finally, use your thumb and gently drag your thumb from underneath the back of your jaw all the way to your chin. Perform this 10 times. 

For all of these motions, you can use as much pressure as feels good.  Mild discomfort is okay (remember, these muscles might be really tight!), but we never want to cause pain with self-massage.

  1. Check in with yourself throughout the day

It is important to be self-aware of when you are clenching your jaw, facial muscles, or neck throughout the day. Common times are when you are sitting or standing in the same position for prolonged periods, during or after stressful moments, and also with wearing a mask (especially if its slipping off your face or uncomfortable!).  When you feel yourself clenching your jaw, try resting your tongue on the roof of your mouth and even try making small circles with your tongue on the roof of your mouth to allow your bottom jaw to slacken and relax.  Take some deep diaphragmatic breaths (see my Blog Post on 360 Degree Breathing to learn how to take the perfect diaphragmatic breath!) and allow your shoulders to drop with each exhale. 

Try the above techniques to reduce stress, pain, and tension throughout the day. It is unknown when mask wearing will no longer be needed, so it’s important that it becomes a comfortable daily activity for ourselves and our bodies.

If you are experiencing pain in your neck or jaw, or worsening headaches, you may need Physical Therapy to help! If you are in Oregon, call or message Life’s Work PT at (503) 295-2585 and visit our website at lifesworkpt.com.  If you are not in Oregon, see our blog post on ‘How to find a good PT’ to find someone in your area who can help you!

Happy mask wearing!