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 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, it's almost impossible to avoid. "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 Wellness in New York City. In one study from Tel Aviv University and University of Wroclaw in Poland, stress and anxiety caused a significant rise in facial and jaw pain, with women suffering more from symptoms than men.

How to Relieve Face, Neck, and Jaw Tension: Asian woman struggling with using laptop at home
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The Biggest Culprits

Physical and Emotional Stress

While emotional stress is certainly one culprit, David J. Calabro, DC—a certified pediatric and pregnancy chiropractor and functional medicine practitioner in Linwood, New Jersey—says physical stress also plays a role. That includes falls, accidents, and traumas such as falling off a bicycle, jamming your head getting out of a car, or undergoing 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," he adds.

But here's the kicker: Too much emotional stress manifests as an increase in 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 an office or 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 extends into your jaw.

Perhaps your head is too far in front of your shoulders, which puts extra stress on the joints and muscles of the neck, shoulders, and jaw; which Calabro says can affect nerves at the base of your skull. 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 experience tension at some point.

If you don't get this tension under control, it can create 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.

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? While you may need to seek medical care, especially if the tension is caused by a structural issue like a joint dysfunction or dental condition, these six strategies can help get things under control.

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Do breathing exercises.

There's a reason every wellness expert recommends breathing exercises: They work. Focusing on breathing helps calm your brain and relieves 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 rhythmic breathing where you breathe in deeply for four seconds, hold for seven seconds, and then blow out forcefully for eight seconds.

RELATED: 14 Meditation, Mindfulness, and Breathing Apps to Help You Keep Your Cool

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Try a gentle jaw massage.

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:

  1. Open your mouth slightly.
  2. Place the palms of your hands in front of your ears.
  3. 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.

RELATED: 4 Self-Massage Techniques That Can Help You Relax at Home

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Alternate your posture.

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 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.

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Manage your stress levels.

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 notice a significant reduction in facial and jaw tension. While everyone has different go-tos for keeping stress in check, Joyce suggests meditating, listening to music, taking a bath, reading, walking your dog, and exercising.

RELATED: 3 Gentle Stretches for Upper Back and Neck Pain From Hours of Sitting (and Stress)

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Stretch your neck and shoulders daily.

Get into the habit of stretching your neck and shoulder muscles daily. Here are two stretches from Joyce that you can do anytime, anywhere.

For the first stretch:

  1. Get into a proper seated posture.
  2. Sit on your left hand to help anchor your left shoulder.
  3. Tilt your head to the right so your right ear moves toward your right shoulder.
  4. 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.
  5. Hold for 30 seconds, remembering to breathe deeply, and then repeat three times before switching to the other side.

For the second stretch, start in the same seated position as above—but before applying pressure on or tipping your head toward the right shoulder:

  1. Rotate your head down so your nose is pointed to your right armpit.
  2. Place your right hand on top of your head and gently pull your head down more to increase the stretch in the back of your neck and spine.
  3. Hold for 30 seconds, breathing deeply, and then repeat three times consecutively before switching to the other side.
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