Written by: Dr. Lara Coseo, DDS
Jaw pain affects millions of Americans each year. For some, it is a temporary problem, but for many, it is the source of chronic, debilitating pain. Jaw pain can come from a wide variety of problems, so it is important to obtain an accurate diagnosis in order to get the correct treatment.
What Causes Jaw Pain?
It is important to understand the potential causes of jaw pain because some are quite serious health concerns. Here, we have listed the most common causes of jaw pain. In order to diagnose yours, you must see a dentist, a medical doctor, or sometimes both.
When a tooth has an infection from a deep cavity or gum disease, it will spread into the surrounding jawbone if you do not treat it. These infections can cause pain in the jawbone, swelling in the cheek and neck, and pus drainage.
Sometimes, a tooth infection will put pressure on a nerve, causing radiating nerve pain, which can be stinging or burning. It can also cause strange sensations of numbness.
Tooth infections are dangerous because, in rare cases, they can spread to areas of the body that lead to death. This happens if the infection spreads into the airway, the bloodstream, or the brain.
Teeth Clenching or Grinding
Another common cause of jaw pain is the result of teeth clenching and/or grinding (which dentists call bruxism). This subconscious habit often occurs during sleep, so it is not easy to control or eliminate. When people clench or grind their teeth, the muscles that close the upper and lower jaws together are hyperactive. They experience tension and pain just like any overworked skeletal muscle.
When you exercise, your muscles become sore. This is what happens in the face and head when you clench or grind your teeth. Most people experience symptoms of headaches, especially in the region of the temples, or facial pain in the cheeks and jaws. Severe clenching and grinding can increase the size of the jaw muscles, which may make them feel swollen.
Distinct from clenching and grinding, TMJ disorder affects the jaw joints themselves. This can occur with or without bruxism. The TMJs are the most complex joints in the human body. They are the only ball-in-socket joint that includes the ball coming out of the socket during normal function.
TMJ disorder includes arthritis, slipped disks in the joint, and traumatic injuries to the joints.
One lesser known cause of jaw pain is a heart attack. Most people know that pain in the left arm is often a symptom of heart attacks. They can actually cause radiating pain up into the left jaw, too.
This type of pain is of relatively short duration and typically limited to the left side of the jaw. It should accompany other symptoms of heart problems, so we would never diagnose a heart attack if left jaw pain is the sole symptom.
There are multiple nerves leaving the spinal cord in the neck region that supply sensation to the head and neck. It is possible for a misalignment in the upper cervical vertebrae to cause pinching or constriction of these nerves.
This can cause atypical facial pain, including jaw pain. Some people also experience tooth pain, especially in the lower molar region, as a symptom of this category of nerve impingement.
Nerve pain is difficult to both diagnose and treat. For complex cases of jaw pain, you may need to see a neurologist and/or a pain management specialist.
Why Does it Sometimes Happen on Only One Side of the Mouth?
The jaw is an interesting anatomical feature. It is a single, horseshoe-shaped bone that connects to the skull via two separate joints.
The jaw can suffer pain on only one side because of all of the contributing factors to jaw anatomy and function.
The teeth can bite together harder on one side of the jaw than the other. This leads to a larger amount of force on one side of the facial muscles than the other and more compression of the TMJ on one side than the other.
You can also have a tooth infection that affects only one side of the mouth. Or you can have a neck misalignment that pinches a nerve on only one side. The human body is rarely symmetrical, so pain on only one side of the jaw is actually more common that symmetrical pain on both sides
How Can I Relieve Jaw Pain?
We know that jaw pain is a disruption in your everyday life. If you are already experiencing jaw pain, you should take the following measures to manage the pain until you are able to treat the source of the problem.
Undergo Dental Treatment for Infections
Due to the dangerous, spreading nature of dental infections, it is essential that you rule out a tooth infection as the cause of your pain. If your dentist does diagnose an infection, you should proceed with the recommended treatment to eliminate the infection and prevent an emergency situation.
Not only will this relieve the jaw pain you are experiencing. It could save your life!
Take Over-the-Counter Pain Relievers for Joint Pain
When the source of pain is in the TMJs, over-the-counter pain relievers may help. Those with anti-inflammatory properties, like Advil, Aleve and Aspirin, may provide greater pain relief than Tylenol, which does not fight inflammation.
Make sure you take the medication according to the instructions as directed on the packaging. If you are unable to manage your pain with over-the-counter medicine, see your dentist or doctor as soon as possible.
Wear a Protective Mouthguard for Heavy Clenching or Grinding
Those suffering from headaches and facial pain may experience relatively immediate relief by wearing a custom night guard. By separating the upper and lower teeth, a mouthguard can reduce the forces of the muscles in the cheeks, jaws, and temples. It can also provide decompression for the joints.
Have a Chiropractic Adjustment
Some people find great relief from undergoing chiropractic adjustment of the neck and jaws. By properly aligning these joints, the adjustment can relieve pressure on muscles and nerves. You may need to interview several chiropractors to find one who has experience treating those with TMJ disorders and chronic jaw pain.
Can I Prevent Jaw Pain?
Preventing a problem is always better than treating a problem after it starts. You can prevent jaw pain in most cases. Here are some important ways you can stop jaw pain before it starts.
See Your Dentist Regularly
Because tooth infections are rare when you receive consistent dental care, you should commit to seeing a dentist regularly. When you have professional teeth cleanings and exams on a consistent basis, your dentist will catch any potential problems before they reach the stage of infecting the jawbone.
To stop dangerous tooth infections, early detection is key.
Take Care of Your Teeth at Home
You can also join the fight against tooth infections by performing good oral hygiene every day. When you consistently remove dental plaque, you lower your risk for cavities and gum disease. Just by forming good habits, you can prevent a tooth infection that leads to jaw pain and worse.
It is never too late to develop good habits for a healthy mouth.
Wear a Nightguard Preventively
Many people wait until they have painful symptoms of bruxism before they will wear a nightguard. You can prevent those painful symptoms by wearing a mouthguard consistently before you have pain.
If you are clenching and/or grinding your teeth, there will be visible evidence inside your mouth that your dentist can see. Your dentist will note these signs and recommend a mouthguard to protect you against the damaging effects of bruxism.
Wear an Athletic Mouthguard to Prevent Trauma to the Jaws
In order to prevent a common cause of TMJ disorder and chronic pain, athletes should always wear an athletic mouthguard during contact sports. Injuries to the face, mouth, and jaws can lead to degenerative changes in the jaw joints.
Wearing an athletic mouthguard lessens the impact of the force received by the joints. It cushions the upper and lower jaws, covers and protects the teeth, and prevents lacerations of the lips, cheeks and tongue.
What is the Most Important Thing to Know about Jaw Pain?
You may be able to manage some jaw pain by taking preventive measures. For jaw pain that does not respond to your home management attempts, you should see a professional. Due to the variety of causes and the potential seriousness of several, it is important to see your dentist or doctor when you experience severe jaw pain.