The COVID-19 global pandemic has affected nearly everyone’s daily life. Increased mental stress and fatigue during these unprecedented times have manifested in headaches, neck pain and an alarming surge in “TMJ” jaw pain. A recent study reported a 15 to 34 percent increase in temporomandibular dysfunction (TMD) symptoms since the lockdown began last spring.
Due to stay-at-home orders, many workplaces morphed from a formal office setting to the kitchen table, living room couch or, in some cases, from bed. Attending Zoom meetings and simultaneously caring for children became part of the new, often extended workday for many working professionals.
Such changes in environment are resulting in poor posture. Multitasking with laptops at home increases the tendency to forget better ergonomics by placing the neck and upper back muscles in precarious positions that cause pain. Further exacerbating the situation, tension from stress is often “carried” in the neck and shoulder regions.
TMJ pain symptoms like jaw popping/clicking, difficulty chewing, lock jaw, ear ringing/fullness, dizziness and headaches stem from teeth clenching and/or grinding. This subconscious behavior places stress on the jaw muscles and can result in tooth wear and tooth fractures. While teeth grinding typically occurs in about 10 percent of the population, it number increased to 36 percent during the lockdown, as reported by the aforementioned study.
Eliminating stress is extremely challenging particularly in these unprecedented times, but we can modify our behaviors to reduce the stress on our neck and jaw. By being mindful of the head and jaw’s position, we can reduce muscle tension and subsequent pain. It’s also important to keep our top and bottom teeth apart and place the neck and shoulders in a relaxed position.
Proper computer ergonomics also can be key to reducing pain. Sitting upright in a well-supported chair greatly diminishes neck and jaw strain. Additionally, physical exercise, yoga, meditation and massage have been proven to combat the body’s response to stress.
These behaviors can help prevent or minimize symptoms, but if you have ongoing pain, it’s time to seek professional help. Physical therapists specialized in TMJ pain can provide relief to the aching muscle and joints of your face and upper back. Treatment – which may include manual techniques, dry needling, stretches and exercises or laser treatments – is covered by medical health insurance and can provide relief in only a few weeks.
Hope is on the horizon as vaccinations are starting to move us beyond the pandemic. We can enjoy returning to our normal routines – without persistent jaw and neck pain getting in the way.
Ryan Lynch specializes in the treatment of jaw pain, jaw clicking, orofacial pain, neck pain and cervicogenic headaches. One of the only 70 physical therapists in North America who have qualified to specialize through the Physical Therapy Board of Craniofacial & Cervical Therapeutics in this unique area, he is owner/operator of Lynch Physical Therapy with offices in Severna Park and Towson. For more information, visit www.LynchPhysicalTherapy.com or call 410-960-1601.