Stiff Jaws, Cotton-Stuffed Ears, Headaches, Oh My!

Some times folks who come in for a massage report that they feel as if their teeth hurt even though the dentist can’t find anything wrong. Or that they have trouble opening their mouths, or their jaw clicks when they move it. Worst is when they tell me it feels as if they have cotton stuffed in their ears, or they can’t turn the head.


Whatever the description, this is no fun. When muscles are so tight in the neck, jaw and head that they cause headaches and fatigue it’s time to check in for a massage to loosen and relax the muscles.

I like to use a combination of gentle scalp and neck massage followed by a pack of warm, moist towels to release these trouble zones. I dubbed it the “Mother Teresa” treatment because when these areas are wrapped up, well, you look like Mother Teresa.

Giving these muscles a chance to relax often gives them the idea that they can operate without so much tension. As the tissue unwinds, we can look at other influences such as activity and posture that might be trying to bring the pain back.

I have had these problems myself, most from going over the handlebars of my bike, and then working too many hours with my neck bent like a computer golem. Many people who have this type of discomfort have a history of whiplash accidents, but not all.

As I note often, these days people are being asked to do more for less and without a lot of thank-you. When you feel like you are banging your head on the wall at work, it can get to you.

These types of problems are in a family of tension disorders that doctors call tempo-mandibular disorder, TMD, which is a fancy way of saying these muscles are so tense they are causing trouble. As a massage therapist, I look for clusters of tension and try to interrupt these patterns, giving people relief not only from the symptoms but also reducing how often the symptoms occur. Left to themselves, tense muscles tend to pass on and recruit other muscles to imitate their tension, leading to more frequent and more severe attacks.

I like to give some home remedies:

  • Moist heat: Run two facecloths under hot water and use them as hot compresses, placed on either side of the head for about 30 seconds. Make sure they are not so hot you can’t handle them.

  • Moist heat at the base of the neck near the hairline helps. Use a hand towel, folded and rolled up like sushi, either run under hot faucet water or micro waved for about 30 seconds. Again, not so hot you can’t hold it. Lie down with the towel behind your head, half on the neck and half on the hairline. These last for about 20 minutes of moist heat. My massage clients like to call this “neck sushi” for how the towel is rolled up.

  • If you are on the go, buy a cold soda in a can and put it on the back of the neck at the hairline. After about 20-30 seconds, the cold may help reduce the headache.

If you are like me, these tips will make a good bit of sense after you come in for a massage and I show you how to do this. I also have neck and jaw stretches that do not hurt and can help tons when you are under stress and on the go.

Most of all, keep the faith! Tension can be unwound!

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National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork

National Certification Board for
Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork



Certification Number: CMT #1039