Pain is a protective mechanism that signals a health issue to your body, whether that health issue be minor and resolvable, or more worrisome. Jaw pain can happen to anyone as a result of jaw bone pain, muscle injury, nerve damage, clenched teeth, trauma, or even other bodily systemic factors.
First, it is important to understand the temporomandibular joint (TMJ). Yes, that is a mouthful!
The TMJ is a joint that combines the maxilla (upper jaw bone, right above your top row of teeth and below your nose) and the mandible (lower jaw bone, more commonly referred to as the jaw). If you have jaw pain, you might have a TMJ disorder.
Sometimes, jaw pain can be referred to as temporomandibular joint and muscle disorder (TMD)which includes jaw pain related to jaw muscle injury or pain.
Common risk factors of a TMJ disorder include:
Trauma or injury to the jaw
Genetics or family history of TMJ
Arthritis or Connective tissue disease
Bruxism (gnashing one’s teeth at night)
It’s important if you’re experiencing jaw pain to monitor when and how often they have symptoms of jaw pain. By tracking your own symptoms, you can provide important details to our dental team or healthcare provider. This can lead to accurate and pain-relieving treatment for TMJ, TMD, or other jaw pain.
Symptoms of Jaw Pain
Jaw pain might present as mild, moderate, or severe. Everyone has different thresholds for pain, however, it’s important to always remember that pain is a signal to your body that something is wrong. Seeking out medical advice for jaw pain can help you locate the origin of such pain and hopefully resolve symptoms.
Below are some symptoms that a person with TMJ, TMD, or jaw pain might experience. These symptoms are listed to help you identify possible manifestations of this issue at home. If you believe you have any of these symptoms, please contact our team and set up an appointment.
Pain or tenderness of the jaw
“Locking” or popping of the jaw
Clicking or grinding sounds when moving one’s jaw
Jaw pain when chewing
Jaw pain upon waking up, after possible teeth-gnashing in one’s sleep
Aches around face, ears, neck, or jaw
Toothache or tooth pain
Tooth burning or sensitivity
Causes of Jaw Pain
There are common and rare causes of jaw pain that can be assessed and treated by your dental team.
Trauma, or injury, is one of the most common reasons for jaw pain. Someone who has experienced trauma to the face, possibly during an athletic activity, could have a face or jaw fracture and should get a facial x-ray. Another injury, a strain, might occur if a person is holding their jaw or neck in an abnormal position for too long. This should be a self-resolving injury, but that person should still seek out an x-ray to distinguish fracture versus strain. Finally, a person might dislocate their jaw, by opening their mouth too wide.
Arthritis or connective tissue disease, which includes abnormalities of jaw cartilage tissue or bone, can also be a possible cause of jaw pain. For example, if a disc in the jaw that typically protects and cushions movement is broken down due to arthritis or displaced, then you can experience jaw pain.
Tooth infections can also lead to jaw pain because the pain in one’s teeth can radiate to the jaw. Tooth nerves are very sensitive and can lead to burning or sharp pain! Dry sockets from surgery or cracked teeth can also lead to pain. All of these conditions can be assessed at your local dentist.
Teeth grinding, or bruxism, is a common habit that does not always lead to jaw pain. However, if someone feels like their jaw often involuntarily locks, or they have jaw pain in the morning when waking up, they might be grinding their teeth in their sleep. This can lead to jaw pain.
In less common cases, some people might have jaw pain that is secondary to other infections or bodily changes and not associated with TMJ disorder, such as:
Nerve pain, referred to as trigeminal neuralgia
Coronary artery disease
These other bodily changes often present with specific signs. For example, someone with coronary artery disease will feel chest pain that radiates to the jaw. In this instance, it is recommended that this person seeks out emergent medical treatment. If a woman is pregnant, her hormones might cause bone weakness, thus leading to jaw pain. If a person often experiences cluster headaches or suspects nerve trauma after ruling out other causes of jaw pain, that person can consult with a neurologist.
What If I Have Jaw Pain?
The first step to take if you have jaw pain is to pay close attention to your symptoms and report them to a trusted healthcare provider. At Lifetime Dental Health in Columbus, OH, our dental team will perform x-rays and jaw examinations for patients. These thorough examinations can help identify the origin of jaw pain and possible TMJ or TMD.
From there, if there is no connection between the jaw pain and the mouth/teeth, patients might be referred onward to neurologists or other specialized care to solve the mystery.
There aremany recommend treatments for jaw pain, including at-home treatments:
Reduce jaw movement. Try to avoid stress to reduce jaw-clenching.
Eat mostly soft foods. Avoid chewy or tough foods, like gum, gummies, beef jerky, apples, caramel, and tough meat. Avoid foods that are extremely hot or cold, which might trigger sensitivities or pain.
Apply ice packs or a warm moist towel to the jaw, intermittently. If applying an ice pack, place it in a plastic bag and wrap it in a towel to avoid ice burns. Leave it on for 10 minutes, or only as long as it is comfortable, and then remove for 10 minutes, and repeat as needed. For applying a warm moist towel, ensure the water is not too hot that it will burn your skin. The warm water might relax jaw spasms.
Gently massage your painful jaw. Using two fingers to press your jaw in a circular motion. Practice gently stretching your jaw, but do not stretch your jaw if it hurts.
Take over-the-counter acetaminophen or ibuprofen for pain relief.
Our dental team might also recommend or prescribe a mouth guard, muscle relaxants, anti-inflammatory or steroid medications, or antibiotics as needed. In some cases, a person with jaw pain might benefit from tooth extraction, root canal therapy, Botox injections, or jaw surgery. These procedures tend to be rare and only done when a person is properly diagnosed first.
Prolonged, or constant, jaw pain is unlikely to resolve on its own. If pain persists or becomes severe, it is important to contact your dental team and have them assess your jaw and teeth. Immediately seek medical attention if you have shortness of breath or are unable to swallow or if chest pain accompanies your jaw pain.
If you have jaw pain that you would like to have assessed, contact us here at Lifetime Dental Health.