Surgical masks, N95 masks, no-sew masks, bandanas. I've almost forgotten what the rest of the staff looks like because we haven't really seen each other in weeks. Masks have become the new fashion statement of 2020 during this COVID-19 pandemic. Many states and local governments have even made wearing one a legal requirement.
After about a week of wearing surgical masks and N95 masks, I have come to the conclusion that humans should not have their ears pulled on with so much tension for such extended periods of time. It has become like an old-fashioned form of punishment and brings me back to being a kid when my grandma would pull me by the ear to my parents when I misbehaved.
Every one of my staff members, including myself, has started complaining about frequent headaches and jaw pain since we've been forced to wear masks during our long hours.
So why does this happen and how can we avoid/alleviate some of the symptoms? Below I'll share why masks can cause this pain and what we can do about it!
Why are headaches our new normal?
Well really, headaches are brain aches and trigeminal nerves have been known to create crippling headaches.
Pictured below, courtesy of my Essential Anatomy App, you can see that the trigeminal nerve branches (auriculotemporal nerves)go directly from your brain out and course underneath your scalp and through this muscle. The tight and of the masks yank against these nerves and structures which can cause that low-grade tension headache. It travels through and then tightens the tentorium membrane.
The tentorium membrane is a saran-wrap-like material that covers your brain, and during stress, it tightens up. And can you think of anything more stressful right now than COVID-19?
So then why is jaw pain imminent?
If you know basic anatomy, you know your ear is in very close proximity to the jaw. When you tug down on your ears or wear a mask with tight bands, you draw your ears down and forward toward your jaw and create a ton of compression on the disc of your jaw (which is directly in front of your ear hole).
If you have a really tight mask like an N95, you are then coupling that with the tugging up and in on your chin which causes even more compression of the jaw.
Now if you're one of the lucky ones, you'll experience both jaw pain and a headache at the same time. Oh me, oh my!
So what can you do to help fight this combination of ailment?
Doing a tentorium membrane stretch can warm up your cranial nerves and allow for that saran-wrap to loosen. Stretching it lightly can give you some much-needed space for your brain and nerves!
You'll also need to do some jaw strengthening and stretching exercises to combat the temporalis from being smooshed and pulled away at your ear. Try out these exercises below before you put your mask on for the day and let us know what you think!
So give these exercises a shot and hopefully, we are able to prevent nagging headaches and aching jaw pain from frequent mask wear!
Dr. Justin C. Lin