Dealing With Jaw, Neck, or Face Tension Lately? Here Are 5 Ways to Get Relief (Without Turning to Advil)
Aches and pains in the neck and jaw area affect more people than you think. Here are some pro tips for releasing tension yourself.
Tension in the neck, jaw, and face is so common that it’s almost impossible to be human and not have it. “Nearly every patient who walks through our door has some level of this type of tension,” says Sean Joyce, PT, DPT, a licensed physical therapist with Hudson Medical + Wellness in New York City. Although the causes are numerous, the pandemic has certainly done its fair share to make things worse for people. Evidence suggests that stress and anxiety from COVID-19 are driving an increase in facial pain. In one study from Tel Aviv University, stress and anxiety caused a significant rise in facial and jaw pain, with women suffering more from symptoms than men, and people aged 35 to 55 suffering the most of anyone.
The Biggest Culprits
Physical and Emotional Stress
Added stress brought on by the pandemic is what David J. Calabro, DC, a certified pediatric and pregnancy chiropractor and functional medicine practitioner in Linwood, N.J., classifies as emotional stress, and while it’s certainly one culprit, physical stress also plays a role. Physical stress includes falls, accidents, and traumas such as falling off a bicycle, jamming your head getting out of a car, or going through a C-section delivery (which puts extra stress on the neck), even if these things happened when you were young. “They can manifest years later as pain or other symptoms,” Calabro says. But here’s the kicker: If you have too much emotional stress, you can suffer an increase of physical stress. “You might hold more tension in your body, stress-eat, which can drive weight gain and add to more physical stress, or use poor posture,” Calabro explains.
Bad Postural Habits
Unfortunately, modern-day living exacerbates poor posture. Maybe you have a work-from-home station that’s not set up properly: the mouse is positioned too far away and your arm is overstretched for too long, which can cause shoulder and neck tension that even extends into the jaw.
Or it’s possible your head is too far forward in front of your shoulders, which puts extra stress on the joints and muscles of the neck, shoulders, and jaw—and can even affect nerves at the base of the skull, Calabro says. In fact, Joyce notes that because so much of what modern living requires is forward-focused—sitting at a desk, looking at your iPhone, even driving—and because most people don’t perform mobility or strengthening exercises to counteract poor posture, you’re bound to get tension at some point.
If you don’t get this tension under control, it can lead to bigger issues. “Basically, it can lead to pain, soreness, stiffness, tenderness, arthritis, loss of mobility, muscle spasms, muscle loss, muscle imbalance, numbness, tingling and burning in the arm and hands, and other neurological pains and symptoms,” Calabro says. It can also exacerbate existing conditions like high blood pressure, headaches, migraines, and sinus problems.
But at the very least, tension, pain, or aching in the neck, face, and jaw is plain old uncomfortable. So how do you keep it in check and find relief when it’s at its worst? While you still may need to seek medical care, especially if the tension is being caused by a structural issue like a joint dysfunction or dental condition, these six strategies can help get things under control.
There’s a reason every wellness expert recommends breathing exercises: They work. Focusing on breathing can help calm the brain and take you out that tension-inducing fight-or-flight response. What’s more, “breathing exercises can reduce blood pressure, improve circulation, reduce cortisol levels and put you in a state of ease rather than stress,” Calabro says. Try doing rhythmic breathing where you breathe in deeply for four seconds, hold for seven seconds and then blow out forcefully for eight seconds.
Stretching or massaging your jaw might never have crossed your mind, but if you’re aching there, Calabro recommends this easy, soothing massage that feels so good.
Open your mouth slightly, place the palms of your hands in front of your ears, and slowly open your mouth as you gently massage straight down your face. If you’ve been clenching your teeth all day, this could be a little uncomfortable so go nice and easy.
Whether you’re standing or sitting all day, staying in one position for too long will cause problems. “We’re meant to be fluid beings,” Joyce says. His patients see the best results when they alternate from sitting to standing, or vice versa, every 30 minutes. “Doing this will help alleviate tension in the neck, jaw and face, promote good posture and decrease the chance that you develop soft tissue adaptations that keep you from being able to achieve optimal posture.”
Set a recurring timer for every 30 minutes to remind you it’s time to switch it up.
This might be the most overstated tip of the year, but it’s worth repeating. “By forcing yourself to break away from the tunnel vision that your stress creates, you’ll give tight muscles a chance to unwind,” Joyce says. While you’re easing mental and physical symptoms of stress, you may even notice significant improvements in facial and jaw tension. Everybody has different ways of keeping stress in check but suggestions include meditating, listening to music, taking a bath, reading, walking your dog, and exercising.
Get into the habit of stretching your neck and shoulder muscles daily. Here are two stretches from Joyce that you can do anytime, anywhere.
Get into a proper seated posture. Then sit on your left hand to help anchor your left shoulder. Tilt your head to the right so your right ear moves toward your right shoulder. Place your right hand on top of your head and gently pull your head further to the right to intensify the stretch on the left side. Hold for 30 seconds, remembering to breathe deeply, and repeat three times before switching to the other side.
For the second stretch, you’ll start in the same seated position as above—but before applying pressure on or tipping your head toward the right shoulder, first rotate your head down so your nose is pointed to your right armpit. Now place your right hand on top of your head and gently pull the head down more to increase the stretch in the back of the neck and spine. Hold for 30 seconds, breathing deeply, and repeat three times consecutively before switching to the other side.