(updated for accuracy on 05/31/23)
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.
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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.
Jaw pain can be caused by various factors, including:
- Temporomandibular Joint (TMJ) Disorders: TMJ disorders involve issues with the temporomandibular joint, which connects the jawbone to the skull. These disorders can result from joint damage, misalignment, or problems with the surrounding muscles and ligaments. TMJ disorders can cause jaw pain, clicking or popping sounds, difficulty in opening or closing the mouth, and headaches.
- Dental Conditions: Several dental problems can contribute to jaw pain. Tooth decay, gum disease, abscesses, impacted teeth (such as wisdom teeth), or dental trauma can cause localized jaw pain. Infections or inflammation in the teeth or gums can also lead to discomfort in the jaw area.
- Bruxism: Bruxism is the habit of grinding or clenching the teeth, often during sleep or in response to stress. This habit can exert excessive pressure on the jaw, leading to jaw pain, muscle fatigue, headaches, and tooth damage.
- Trauma or Injury: A direct blow or injury to the jaw can cause pain and swelling. Fractures, dislocations, muscle strains, or sprains in the jaw region can result in significant jaw pain.
- Sinus Problems: Sinusitis, an inflammation of the sinus cavities, can cause referred pain to the jaw area. The maxillary sinuses, located near the cheekbones, are in close proximity to the jaw joint, so sinus infections or inflammation can cause jaw pain.
- Trigeminal Neuralgia: Trigeminal neuralgia is a condition characterized by severe facial pain, including jaw pain. It is caused by irritation or damage to the trigeminal nerve, which supplies sensation to the face. The pain is usually triggered by simple actions such as speaking, chewing, or even light touch.
- Other Medical Conditions: Some systemic medical conditions can lead to jaw pain as a secondary symptom. These include conditions like arthritis, fibromyalgia, certain autoimmune disorders, or certain types of headaches, such as cluster headaches or migraines.
It’s important to note that jaw pain can have various causes, and an accurate diagnosis is crucial for effective treatment. If you experience persistent or severe jaw pain, it is recommended to consult a healthcare professional, such as a dentist, oral surgeon, or physician, who can evaluate your symptoms, identify the underlying cause, and provide appropriate treatment options.
Teeth Clenching or Grinding
A 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.
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.
Relieving jaw pain depends on the underlying cause. Here are some general strategies that may help alleviate jaw pain:
- Apply heat or cold packs: Applying a warm compress or a cold pack to the affected area can help reduce pain and inflammation. Use a heat pack or a warm towel for 15-20 minutes several times a day, or apply an ice pack wrapped in a thin cloth for about 10-15 minutes at a time.
- Practice relaxation techniques: Stress and tension can contribute to jaw pain. Engaging in relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, meditation, or gentle stretching exercises, can help relax the jaw muscles and reduce pain.
- Avoid excessive jaw movements: Minimize activities that may strain the jaw, such as chewing gum, biting nails, or opening your mouth wide. Stick to soft foods and avoid foods that require excessive chewing.
- Practice good posture: Maintaining good posture can help relieve jaw pain caused by poor alignment or tension. Sit and stand up straight, and avoid slouching or jutting your chin forward.
- Perform jaw exercises: Gentle jaw exercises can help improve jaw mobility and relieve pain. Consult a healthcare professional, such as a physical therapist or dentist, for specific exercises tailored to your condition.
- Take over-the-counter pain relievers: Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen or naproxen, can help reduce pain and inflammation. Follow the instructions on the package or consult a healthcare professional for appropriate dosage and duration.
- Use relaxation techniques for bruxism: If jaw pain is due to bruxism (teeth grinding), relaxation techniques before bedtime can help reduce clenching and grinding. This may include warm baths, gentle stretching, or soothing music.
- Seek professional treatment: If home remedies do not provide sufficient relief, it is advisable to seek professional help. A dentist, oral surgeon, or a healthcare professional specializing in TMJ disorders can evaluate your condition and provide appropriate treatment options. These may include dental devices, physical therapy, or in some cases, surgical intervention.
- Wear a custom mouthguard: 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.
What causes jaw pain near the ear?
Jaw pain near the ear can be caused by various factors, some of which include:
- Temporomandibular Joint (TMJ) Disorders: The temporomandibular joint connects your jawbone to your skull. TMJ disorders can arise from issues with the joint itself or the muscles surrounding it. Symptoms may include jaw pain near the ear, difficulty opening or closing the mouth, clicking or popping sounds, and headaches.
- Bruxism: Bruxism refers to the habit of grinding or clenching your teeth, often unconsciously, during sleep or when stressed. This constant pressure can lead to jaw pain and discomfort near the ear. Other signs of bruxism include worn-down teeth, headaches, and facial muscle fatigue.
- Dental Problems: Dental conditions like tooth decay, abscesses, gum infections, or impacted wisdom teeth can radiate pain to the jaw area, causing discomfort near the ear. These conditions may require dental examination and treatment.
- Ear Infections: In some cases, pain originating from the ear can be referred to the jaw area. Ear infections, such as otitis media (middle ear infection) or otitis externa (outer ear infection), can cause pain in both the ear and jaw region. Other symptoms may include earache, fluid discharge, and hearing loss.
- Sinusitis: Sinusitis, an inflammation of the sinus cavities, can cause pain and pressure around the cheeks, eyes, forehead, and jaw. The maxillary sinuses, located near the cheekbones, can refer pain to the jaw area close to the ear. Other symptoms of sinusitis include nasal congestion, facial tenderness, and thick nasal discharge.
- Trauma or Injury: An injury to the jaw, such as a direct blow or impact, can result in pain near the ear. Fractures, dislocations, or muscle strains can lead to jaw pain, swelling, difficulty in opening or closing the mouth, and bruising.
It is important to consult a healthcare professional, such as a dentist or an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist, for a proper diagnosis and appropriate treatment based on your specific symptoms. They will be able to provide a thorough evaluation and recommend the most suitable course of action.
Is jaw pain a symptom of anything?
Yes, jaw pain can be a symptom of various conditions or underlying issues. Some of the common causes of jaw pain include:
- Temporomandibular Joint (TMJ) Disorders: TMJ disorders can cause jaw pain, often near the ear, along with other symptoms like difficulty in opening or closing the mouth, clicking or popping sounds, and headaches.
- Dental Problems: Tooth decay, abscesses, gum infections, or impacted wisdom teeth can lead to jaw pain. These dental conditions may also cause localized swelling, tooth sensitivity, and difficulty in biting or chewing.
- Bruxism: Grinding or clenching the teeth, known as bruxism, can result in jaw pain. This habit often occurs during sleep or in response to stress. Bruxism can also lead to worn-down teeth, headaches, and facial muscle fatigue.
- Trigeminal Neuralgia: Trigeminal neuralgia is a nerve disorder characterized by severe facial pain, including jaw pain. The pain can be triggered by simple activities like speaking, eating, or even touching the face.
- Sinusitis: Sinusitis, an inflammation of the sinus cavities, can cause pain and pressure around the cheeks, eyes, forehead, and jaw. The pain may be more noticeable near the upper jaw, close to the ear. Other symptoms of sinusitis include nasal congestion, facial tenderness, and thick nasal discharge.
- Ear Infections: Ear infections, such as otitis media (middle ear infection) or otitis externa (outer ear infection), can cause pain in the ear that may radiate to the jaw area. The pain may be accompanied by other symptoms like earache, fluid discharge, and hearing loss.
- Trauma or Injury: Injuries to the jaw, such as fractures, dislocations, or muscle strains, can cause jaw pain. Trauma or injury may also lead to swelling, difficulty in opening or closing the mouth, and bruising.
It is important to remember that jaw pain can have various causes, and a proper diagnosis by a healthcare professional is essential to determine the underlying condition and recommend appropriate treatment.
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.
If Playing Sports, 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.
How do you release jaw tension?
- Jaw relaxation exercises: Perform gentle jaw exercises to relieve tension. Start by opening your mouth slowly and as wide as comfortable, and then close it slowly. Repeat this movement several times. Additionally, you can gently massage the muscles of your jaw using your fingertips in circular motions.
- Warm compress or moist heat: Applying a warm compress or moist heat to the jaw area can help relax the muscles and reduce tension. Use a warm towel or a heat pack and apply it to the jaw for about 15-20 minutes. Make sure the temperature is comfortable and not too hot to avoid burning the skin.
- Self-massage: Gently massaging the muscles around your jaw can help release tension. Place your fingertips on the jaw muscles near the ear and apply gentle pressure using circular motions. Gradually move along the jawline towards the chin. Repeat this massage for a few minutes, focusing on areas that feel tight or tender.
- Stretching exercises: Perform simple stretching exercises to release tension in the jaw muscles. For example, open your mouth as wide as possible and hold for a few seconds, then relax. Repeat this a few times. Another exercise is to place your tongue on the roof of your mouth and slowly open and close your mouth, focusing on keeping the tongue in place.
- Relaxation techniques: Engage in relaxation techniques to reduce overall stress and tension, which can contribute to jaw tension. Deep breathing exercises, meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, or yoga can help relax both the mind and body.
- Avoid clenching and grinding: Be mindful of clenching your jaw or grinding your teeth, as this can increase tension. If you notice yourself clenching during the day, consciously relax your jaw and position your teeth slightly apart. If you grind your teeth at night, wearing a nightguard recommended by a dentist can help reduce the impact and tension.
- Correct posture: Poor posture can contribute to jaw tension. Maintain good posture by keeping your head upright, shoulders relaxed, and avoiding forward head posture. Proper alignment can help alleviate unnecessary strain on the jaw muscles.
- Reduce stress: Stress can exacerbate jaw tension. Find ways to manage stress, such as practicing relaxation techniques, engaging in regular exercise, getting enough sleep, and seeking support from friends, family, or a therapist.
Can jaw pain fix itself?
Jaw pain can sometimes resolve on its own, depending on the underlying cause. In cases where the pain is temporary and caused by minor factors like muscle strain or mild trauma, it may go away with time and self-care measures. However, if the jaw pain persists or worsens, it is important to seek professional evaluation and treatment.
There are various conditions and factors that can contribute to jaw pain, such as temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorders, dental problems, bruxism (teeth grinding), or other underlying medical issues. These conditions may require specific interventions or treatments to address the underlying cause and alleviate the pain.
Ignoring persistent jaw pain without seeking appropriate medical attention can lead to further complications or worsening of the condition. It is advisable to consult a healthcare professional, such as a dentist, oral surgeon, or a specialist in TMJ disorders, who can accurately diagnose the cause of your jaw pain and recommend suitable treatment options.
Prompt medical evaluation can help identify and address the underlying cause of the pain, leading to more effective and timely management.
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.