Jaw pain is one of the most debilitating dental condition that can have adverse effects on your ability to chew and speak. A tight jaw or a locked jaw often causes immediate pain and discomfort in various areas such as the face, head, neck, teeth, ears, and supporting muscles.
Jaw pain can vary in degree and characteristics depending on the type of cause. Often it ranges from dull throbbing and tender to severe sharp shooting pain. Movement of the mouth and jaw can worsen the condition and increase the intensity of the pain. Because jaw pain can affect several areas of the head and neck region, patients fail to locate the exact point of origin.
Often jaw pain is associated with typical symptoms like clicking or popping sounds of the temporomandibular joint and limited range of motion. Although people may seek home pain relief therapy, it is essential not to ignore the jaw pain. Untreated jaw pain can have a severe impact on your daily activities, like eating food or speaking. Today’s article will summarize the different causes of jaw pain. Furthermore, we will also discuss various treatments and pain management techniques.
Jaw pain is typically referred to as a painful condition that is mainly caused by the dysfunction of masticatory muscles and temporomandibular joint. Often situations that cause jaw pain lead to restricted movement of the mouth and jaw accompanied by clicking or popping of the temporomandibular joint. (1)
Jaw pain is a relatively common dental problem which can have devastating effects on the patient’s quality of life. Some patients seek dental treatment complaining of redness and inflammation, which may often extend or radiate to other parts of the head and neck.
What causes jaw pain?
Most of the times jaw pain occurs due to infection or injury to the jaw, temporomandibular joint or muscles. Some of the potential causes of jaw pain include the following –
Temporomandibular joint disorders
Often the first suspect of jaw pain is considered as a temporomandibular joint disorder. A TMJ disorder is a collection of jaw syndromes that affect the mobility of the jaw. Additionally, the patient experiences a clicking or popping of the jaw while opening and closing the mouth. (2)
Tooth related conditions
Bruxism or teeth grinding
Teeth grinding is one of the most common causes of jaw pain. During this activity, the patient tends to tightly clench their teeth or rub their teeth against one another. Often this activity is performed during the night during sleep. The patient wakes up in the morning with soreness in the jaw and associated muscles.
A tooth abscess can result in localized pain in the jaw. An untreated tooth abscess can evolve into bony infections like osteomyelitis. Often severe gum or periodontal disease can also cause pain in the jaw.
Bony infections such as osteomyelitis
Osteomyelitis is an infectious dental condition that develops in the jaw. It occurs when the infection from extensive tooth decay or infected pulp reaches the bloodstream.
Neuropathic pain disorder
Trigeminal neuralgia is one of the most unique and adverse health conditions that is caused by inflammation or irritation of the trigeminal nerve. Often this type of pain is characterized as a sharp shooting or pinpoint pain that occurs unilaterally and involves the skin of the face. (3)
Typically, trigeminal neuralgia comprises of trigger points that can initiate painful symptoms. Jaw movements are one of the prime trigger points for trigeminal neuralgia.
Tension Headache or migraine
A migraine is a severe form of headache which usually occurs unilaterally around the temple region of the head and gradually spreads to involve the entire affected side of the head. Often migraine is associated with dizziness, nausea, and photosensitivity. It is also one of the leading causes of jaw pain.
Tension headache is often caused as a result of stress. It occurs as a band of pain around the forehead which aggravates during the day.
Sinusitis is described as an inflammatory condition of the air-filled cavity that occurs as a result of chronic infection. Often the sinus cavity gets filled with mucus and pus, which can put pressure on the surrounding nerves. Sinusitis often radiated the pain to the ear, head, and jaw. Most often, sinusitis causes pain in the upper jaw and teeth.
Excessive stress and anxiety
Often extreme stress and anxiety can lead to the development of tension headache and clenching of the teeth. The consequences of these activities have a debilitating effect on the jaw. Often the patient may feel tightness in the jaw and muscles.
What are the signs and symptoms of jaw pain?
The intensity of jaw pain often varies from mild to moderate or severe depending on the type of underlying condition. Typical signs and symptom of jaw pain are listed below –
- Extensive tooth decay or tooth abscess can cause localized pain in the jaw. Usually, the patient can point the origin of pain during a dental examination. Jaw pain associated with tooth decay or disease is often dull throbbing or sharpshooting in nature.
- Jaw pain caused by migraine, cluster headache, or tension headache often radiates the pain from the jaw to the back of the neck, near the ear and sides of the head. Usually, the intensity of pain in this condition increases, gradually causing immense discomfort.
- Trigeminal neuralgia is a type of orofacial pain that can often affect the jaw. Usually, movements of the jaw while chewing or speaking can trigger trigeminal neuralgia.
- Temporomandibular joint pains are generally associated with clicking or popping sound of the joint. (4)
- Locking of the jaw
- Redness and inflammation of the affected area caused by infection from tooth decay or sinusitis
- Stiffness of the jaw muscles
- Limited range of motion
- Difficulty in chewing or speaking
- A shift in the jaw alignment which may lead to an incorrect bite
Usually, jaw pain occurs bilaterally. However, in some cases, unilateral jaw pain and associated symptoms may be experienced.
How is jaw pain diagnosed?
Out of all the types of oral pain, jaw pain is one of the most challenging condition to diagnose. This is because there is no standard test to identify the exact cause of jaw pain. Often it requires a comprehensive approach to rule out different health conditions and confirm the diagnosis of jaw pain.
A dentist and a medical professional usually team up to examine the mouth, ear, nose, throat, head, and neck symptoms. Typically, they look for clear signs of swelling or tenderness and signs of temporomandibular joint dysfunction. A thorough medical and dental history of the patient is recorded. Some of the tests that are used to diagnose jaw pain include –
- Radiographic study of the jaws
- CT scans to check the jaw bone and joint tissues
- MRI to rule out soft tissue problems such as temporomandibular disc displacement or muscle problems.
- Electromyography to monitor the activity of the muscle and evaluate the functionality (5)
Once the health care professional confirms an accurate diagnosis of jaw pain, a detailed treatment plan is charted out to relieve the pain and cure the underlying cause.
How is jaw pain treated?
Treatment of jaw pain mainly depends on the type of cause. However, symptomatic treatment of jaw pain is the first step towards comforting the patient. This includes the use of od pain medications like ibuprofen or acetaminophen. Some muscle relaxants like Flexeril or valium can be given to relieve muscle tightness. Jaw pain associated with swelling is often treated with anti-inflammatory drugs such as corticosteroids. Typically, treatment of jaw pain can be divided into three categories –
- Dental corrections – jaw pain caused by tooth abscess or dental infection should be addressed immediately by a dentist. Conventional dental therapy includes root canal treatment or tooth removal, depending on the extent and severity of the tooth infection.
People with bruxism are usually advised to wear a protective night guard. A night guard is a custom-fitted dental appliance which prevents the tooth contact during grinding motion. Moreover, it helps to relieve the jaw pain caused by bruxism.
- Botox injection – Botox is an invasive cosmetic treatment in which the botulinum toxin injected in the jaw muscles prevents clenching movements to relieve the pain. One dose of Botox typically lasts for one month. Re-injections may be required after evaluation of the condition.
- Surgical intervention – surgery is always the last resort for treating jaw pain. Often jaw surgery is recommended for correction of temporomandibular joint disorders to relieve severe pain and discomfort. (6)
Surgical treatments can cause post-operative swelling or discomfort. It is essential to start physiotherapy gradually at this time. Your doctor may recommend some simple jaw moving exercises which will improve the functionality of the jaw.
Often all surgical interventions are followed by a series of concrete jaw exercises. This involves stretching the jaw and moving it side to side. Physiotherapy is usually necessary to ensure proper mouth opening post-surgery. Some pain may be experienced while performing these exercises; however, you can take pain medications as prescribed by the doctor. Other medical treatments for jaw pain relief include –
- TENS – transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation – this is a technique which uses low voltage electrical stimulation of the nerve to relieve pain.
How can you manage jaw pain at home?
Home remedies are often the first treatment option people reach out for. However, these techniques are only temporary. It is essential to get medical care for the complete removal of the cause and proper healing. Some of the standard home therapies to relieve jaw pain are listed below –
- The first thing you should do is to switch to a soft diet. Avoid hard or chewy and spicy food.
- Over-the-counter pain medications such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen can be used to subside the pain.
- Painful dental conditions like tooth decay or infection can be temporarily treated by placing a piece of cotton soaked in clove oil. Clove oil can be easily purchased over-the-counter. It has therapeutic properties which help to subside tooth pain.
- Homemade pain relief spray may be used under supervision. To prepare your own pain relief spray mix a few drops of essential oil in water and store it in a spray bottle. Spray 1-2 puffs of the solution on the skin of the affected area. Make sure not to use the spray intra-orally as it may irritate the delicate oral tissues.
- Relaxation therapies and stress reduction exercises like meditation and deep breathing can go a long way in preventing jaw pain and teeth clenching.
- Hot and cold compress using wet warm cloth or ice pack respectively have shown temporary relief from jaw pain.
- Quit oral habits like chewing tobacco – this can lead to worsening of the painful symptoms. Moreover, it can create stress on the jaws. Other side effects of chewing tobacco include the development of pre-cancerous lesions in the mouth.
- An effective home remedy to relieve jaw pain is to massage the gentle massage your jaw or the affected area using your index and middle finger. Move the fingers in a circular motion. Take care not to rub the sensitive parts of the jaw. Gentle massaging can be performed several times a day. It helps to control muscle spasms and reduce pain temporarily.
Take away message
Jaw pain is relatively a common oral condition that can occur due to several reasons. Some of the common causes of jaw pain include temporomandibular joint disorder, excessive stress, and habit of teeth grinding or bruxism. (7) Mild jaw pain can be treated successfully at home by using over-the-counter pain relievers and physiotherapy of the jaw and muscles. Some other types of home remedies may include stress reduction exercises and behavior modifications, like maintaining a soft diet.
However, professional treatments are always recommended to diagnose the exact cause behind the jaw pain and treat it appropriately. This eliminates future oral problems of the jaw. Some of the medical treatment for jaw pain management include dental corrections, therapeutic and surgical intervention followed by physiotherapy of the jaw.
If you are experiencing any of the symptoms mentioned above, consult your dentist and discuss jaw pain management.