Jaw pain is a common complaint with many underlying causes. It could either be due to issues in the jaw itself or its surrounding structures such as the sinuses, ears, or teeth.
The intensity of jaw pain can be broadly described as debilitating, achy, throbbing, tender, or severe. These sensations may become worse while chewing or yawning. It can interfere with your ability to eat and speak.
The jawbone, also known as mandible, connects to the skull via the temporomandibular joints (TMJs). TMJs sit directly below the ears between the lower jaw and the temporal bone; it enables the opening and closing of the mouth.
Jaw also holds the teeth and gums, which can become sensitive to cold, heat, or pressure. They may also get infected if you don’t keep them clean.
Common causes of jaw pain
There are several possible causes of jaw pain.
Temporomandibular joint disorder
The temporomandibular joint disorder is by far the most common cause of jaw pain. It affects up to 12% of the population, especially among young persons and women between the ages of 30 and 50.
Causes of TMD include:
- Excess stimulation of the jaw joint
- Pain from the jaw muscles
- Displacement or arthritis of the disc that cushions the jaw joint
- Injury to the jaw joint
- Tooth damage or misalignment
You might experience TMD if you:
- Grind your teeth at night
- Involuntarily clench your jaw due to stress and anxiety
- Chew gum too often
- Clench your jaw
- Trauma to the jaw, such as getting hit on the jaw while playing contact sports
- Bite your fingernails
- Thrust your jaw out
- Bite your cheek or lip
Frequently performing these actions can cause wear and tear on the TMJ, which can lead to erosion.
Symptoms of TMD include:
- Jaw popping
- Clicking sounds when chewing or opening your mouth
- Ear and jaw pain
- Facial pain
- Difficulty opening and closing mouth if the joint locks
- Constant headaches
- Vision impairment.
TMD is usually temporary. See your doctor if you think you have the condition.
Bruxism (teeth grinding or clenching)
Most often, bruxism occurs when you grind or clench your teeth during sleep or periods of increased emotional stress.
Bruxism can lead to:
- Jaw pain
- Tooth damage
- Misalignment of the teeth
- Teeth erosion
- TMJ break down
- Muscle strain
Symptoms of bruxism include:
- Tooth sensitivity
- Painful or tender teeth
- Facial and neck pain
- Headache on the side of the head
- Popping or clicking of the temporomandibular joint
- Sleep disruption
- Stiffness or soreness in the face, neck, or jaw
In chronic cases, bruxism can cause a tooth fracture.
Dental conditions can cause referred pain that radiates to the jaw, such as:
- Tooth cavity or abscess
- Teeth that are damaged, cracked, sensitive or crowded
- Gum disease, which can damage your jawbone
- Growth of wisdom teeth
- Tooth grinding or clenching
- Misaligned or missing teeth
Other symptoms caused by dental conditions include:
- Pain on one side of the jaw
- Pain throughout the lower face and neck
- Pain when chewing or swallowing
- Pain that gets worse when lying down
- Painful, swelling, bleeding gums
- Facial pain
- Soreness in your mouth
- Loose or sensitive teeth
- Bad breath or persistent dry mouth
- Sensitivity to hot and cold foods
- Fever and flu-like symptoms
Call your dentist right away for these symptoms. Until then, you can rinse your mouth with warm water and use dental floss to get rid of any bits of food around the offending tooth.
Arthritis can damage the cartilage of the temporomandibular joint, impairing the jaw impact absorption in the jaw joint socket.
Symptoms of arthritis in the jaw include:
- Popping sounds and clicking sensation
- TMJ pain and stiffness
- Inflammation or swelling
- A reduced range of motion
Jaw osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis in the TMJ. It develops from wear-and-tear over time.
With jaw osteoarthritis, you may experience pain and stiffness in the TMJ. It can also cause radiating pain in the surrounding area.
Rheumatoid or psoriatic arthritis
Rheumatoid and psoriatic arthritis are autoimmune conditions that occur because your immune system attacks healthy joints. You may experience joint pain all over your body, including in your TMJ. Specific triggers may cause the pain to flare up.
Broken or dislocated jaw
Trauma to the face can culminate in a broken or dislocated jaw.
Common causes include:
- A physical assault to the face
- Vehicle accidents
- Industrial accidents
- Sports injuries
- Trips and falls
The symptoms of a broken jaw include:
- Pain in the jaw or face
- Pain when moving the jaw, such as chewing or opening the mouth
- Bruising and swelling on the face
- Bleeding from the mouth
- Stiffness and difficulty moving the jaw
- Dislodged teeth
- Numbness and bruising on the face
- Jaw moving to the side when opening
The symptoms of a dislocated jaw include:
- Pain in the jaw or face
- Misalignment of the lower part and the upper part of the jaw
- Stiffness and difficulty moving the jaw
- Inability to close the mouth
- An over or underbite
Seek immediate help if you have a broken or dislocated jaw. While waiting for help, you must support the jaw by either holding the jaw in place manually or using a bandage around the head and under the jaw.
Myofascial pain syndrome
Myofascial pain syndrome (MPS) causes chronic pain that is usually localized to one area, such as the jaw. Symptoms of myofascial pain syndrome in the jaw include:
- Musculoskeletal pain
- Persistent or progressive pain
- Tender points in the muscle
- Limited range of motion
- Mood and sleep disturbances
You may experience jaw pain from sinusitis when your nasal passages become inflamed as a result of cold or allergies. A virus generally causes the infection, but you can also get bacterial sinusitis.
- Nasal congestion
- Green or yellow mucus
- Facial pain, tenderness, or swelling
- Difficulty smelling or tasting
Sinusitis often clears up without treatment, but it may be worth checking in with your doctor if it lasts more than a week.
Trigeminal neuralgia is most commonly caused by nerve compression on the trigeminal nerve provides sensation to a large portion of the face, including the upper and lower jaw. Abnormal pressure on the trigeminal nerve can lead to severe pain that usually occurs on one side of your face.
The pain may:
- Occur as you touch your face or move facial muscles, even minimally
- Feel like a constant ache or burn
- Produce shooting, jabbing, or shock-like sensations
- Occur in your lower jaw, mouth, or cheek
- Cause twitching in your face
- Occurs in episodes that last for seconds or minutes
- Becomes more severe over time
Osteomyelitis is an uncommon but severe type of bacterial infection that affects the bone, including the jaw bone.
Causes of osteomyelitis in the jaw include:
- Infection after dental surgery
- Serious dental health issue
- Mouth injury
- Immune conditions
Osteomyelitis infection can spread, causing the bone to die. Immediate treatment is necessary to prevent complications.
Infection of the salivary gland
The infection of the salivary gland can lead to:
- TMJ and jaw popping
- Difficulty opening the mouth
- Facial pain
- Foul taste in the mouth
- Pus in the mouth
- Dry mouth
- Swelling of the face and neck
Tumors and cysts
Tumors are masses of tissue, whereas cysts usually contain fluid. Both can cause jaw pain.
Not all tumors or cysts cause symptoms, but you may experience:
- Persistent pain in your jaw
- Red or white patches in your mouth
- Open or bleeding sores
- A lump or growth
- Lingering soreness or hoarse sensation in your throat
- Tissue growth around the teeth
- A jaw or facial swelling.
Home remedies for immediate relief
If the jaw pain isn’t severe, you can try home remedies to help render immediate relief.
Use heat or ice
Place an ice pack on the jaw area for 10 to 15 minutes – this could help numb pain and swelling. Rest for 10 minutes before applying a moist warm compress for 5 to 10 minutes – the warmth could relax jaw muscles and relieve aches. Alternate hot and cold therapy several times daily if necessary.
Try non-prescription pain relief
Ibuprofen (Advil), acetaminophen (Tylenol), and other over-the-counter pain medications can help relieve pain and inflammation temporarily. Follow the dosage instructions on the package.
Massage therapy can help to release pain and tension in your jaw by increasing blood flow to the area. They can be particularly helpful for TMJ disorders.
Press your index and middle finger on the sore areas of your jaw. Gently rub in 5 to 10 circular rotations, then open your mouth and repeat the exercise. Try this massage several times a day, including before bed.
Home remedies for long-term relief
While the following lifestyle modification strategies may not provide short-term relief, they are essential from preventing jaw pain from recurring.
Practice stress management
If your jaw pain comes from stress-induced clenching or grinding of your teeth, stress management techniques can help you regulate stress response, and therefore reduce jaw pain. Meditation and deep-breathing exercises are examples of useful relaxation techniques.
Change your sleeping position
If you always sleep with your hand under your jaw or sleep on the same side, this could exert pressure on your muscles. Switch to the other side to relieve pain at night.
Avoid chewy or crunchy foods
Chewy or crunchy foods can strain the jaw joint, causing subsequent pain and discomfort. Avoid foods such as jerky, chewing gum, caramel, apples, and ice.
You should eat soft foods instead – these do not overwork the jaw muscles, giving it time to heal. Some foods to consider include tofu, apple sauce, yogurt, smoothies, and juices. Eat the foods in small bites to avoid opening the mouth too wide.
Perform gentle exercises
Perform gentle stretching exercises to relieve tight jaw muscles.
Manual jaw-opening exercise
Repeat small mouth-opening and mouth-closing movements as a warm-up.
Then, place three fingers on the top of your front bottom teeth. Slowly pull down until you feel slight tension on the jaw. Hold for 30 seconds, and then gradually release your jaw back to the starting position. Repeat the stretch 12 times.
Jaw muscle stretch
Press the tip of your tongue on the top of your mouth directly behind your top front teeth. Then, use your tongue to apply gentle pressure and slowly open your mouth as wide as possible. Gradually close it shut. Stop when you feel discomfort. Repeat up to 10 times.
This stretch helps eliminates strain in the upper and lower jaw and neck.
Smile as wide as possible without feeling tightness or pain. While smiling, slowly open your jaw another 2 inches. Inhale deeply via your mouth, then exhale while smiling. Repeat up to 10 times.
Depending on the cause of jaw pain or the presence of other underlying medical conditions, professional interventions may be necessary.
Your doctor may prescribe high doses of NSAIDs, muscle relaxers, antidepressants, or anti-anxiety drugs to manage the jaw pain.
You may benefit from a night splint or a mouthguard, especially if your jaw pain is caused by bruxism while sleeping. It would reduce contact between your upper and lower teeth, thereby decreasing wear-and-tear.
Shortwave diathermy laser treatment
Shortwave diathermy involves using high-frequency electromagnetic energy waves to treat pain and inflammation.
Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS)
TENS uses low-level electrical currents to relieve pain by relaxing your facial muscles and jaw joints. It can be performed at home or the dentist’s office.
When injected into the jaw, the botulinum toxin in Botox prevents your jaw muscles from clenching. These injections will last for months and may require re-injection later.