Mask Jaw and TMJ Discomfort

woman wearing covid protection mask

Posted on 5/25/2021

Have you ever heard the term “mask jaw”? Well, guess what? It’s a thing!

Mask jaw is the jaw pain and pressure many of us experience as we wear our masks for an extended period of time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently put out new masking guidance for vaccinated people, masks will still be part of most of our lives for the foreseeable future. And, all that mask wearing can take a toll!

If you jut your chin forward or tense your jaw muscles to hold your mask in its proper position over your nose and mouth, you are likely experiencing jaw tightness. Headaches and muscle tension can also be caused by stress, something we’ve all felt more of since March 2020!

Let’s take a closer look at how your jaw works. Your jaw bone connects to your skull on both sides of your face, and is referred to as the temporomandibular joint, or TMJ. It is a rounded bone, with a disc that provides a cushion to support the joint, much like the discs in your spine and meniscus in your knee.

When you first open your mouth, your jaw hinges and rotates. As you open further, it glides and translates until you open it fully. This action happens with large muscles from your temples and cheek, to smaller muscles deep within the jaw. At least that’s how it works normally. When there is an issue with the disc, the muscles or the joint itself, it is referred to as temporomandibular joint dysfunction, or TMD.

TMD includes a wide range of symptoms, such as pain in the jaw or neck, headaches, locking of the jaw in an open or closed position, clicking noises and pain or difficulty with speaking, eating or chewing. TMD symptoms are widely reported by many people, but become troublesome when they start limiting your day-to-day activities.

Now, let’s dive into how your mask may be the culprit to any lingering jaw pain you may be experiencing.

  1. Maybe you are breathing through your mouth while wearing your mask. Did you know that this places more stress on the jaw from it being constantly open?

    Wearing a mask can feel like you are not getting enough fresh air, but it should not alter how you breathe. Each inhale and exhale should pass in and out of your nose. Your jaw muscles are relaxed in this “resting” position. This means that the tip of your tongue is gently touching the roof of your mouth while your back teeth, the molars, are not quite touching.  

    If you breathe in and out of your mouth, your jaw remains open. To keep your jaw open means your muscles are doing extra work. When you breathe with a mask on, focus on the air passing in and out of your nose.
  2. Maybe the ear loops are too tight. This creates tension and can throw off the alignment of your jaw and, in some cases, cause headache. 

    Masks come in all shapes and sizes, and the fit is important. Whether made of fabric or disposable, it should never feel like it is pulling your ears forward or your chin backward. These compressive forces can easily trigger a headache. Consider a mask extender or “ear savers” to keep the ear loops from tugging and avoid a potential headache altogether.
  3. Are you clenching your teeth more because of stress? This is an easy trigger for TMJ pain and dysfunction. 

    Remember the resting jaw position? This is the most relaxed position for the muscles. When you clench your teeth and hold that bite position for extended periods of time, the jaw muscles can go into spasm. Avoid gum chewing or biting your nails, which can make symptoms worse. Exercise is a key component to overall health and managing stress. Take a walk or jog, meditate or find another way to get moving. Your body and your jaw will thank you.
  4. Chances are, you are moving your jaw in altered positions to adjust how your mask is resting on your face. 

    With a proper fitting mask, you will avoid overusing your jaw. Use a mask that has some moldable wire that can be shaped around your nose. Additionally, avoid masks that are too big and sag on your face, or that are too small and tug on your ears. You should be able to speak and breath through your mouth (wink, wink) comfortably. To avoid jaw pain, make sure your mask is molded to your face and does not slide or move easily.  

    If you are feeling pain or clenching in your jaw, experiencing headaches or are having difficulty with chewing or eating, physical therapy can help. To learn more about our TMD program or to schedule an appointment at one of our centers, please contact us today.

    By: Nicole Romaine, P.T., MPT. Nicole is a physical therapist for Kessler Rehabilitation Center in West Orange, NJ. 

    Kessler and Physio are part of the Select Medical Outpatient Division family of brands.