Jaw Pain

What Is Jaw Pain?

Jaw pain can be a sign of something as common as a toothache -- or even something as serious as a heart attack. Your jawbone, also called a mandible, connects to your skull at a pair of joints known as the temporomandibular joints, or TMJs. These joints are just in front of your ears, and they let you open and close your mouth.

Your jaw also holds your teeth and gums, which can be sensitive to heat, cold, or pressure. They also can get infected if you don’t keep them clean.

What Causes Jaw Pain?

TMJ disorders

This is one of the most common reasons for jaw pain. About 1 in 8 people may have a TMJ disorder. It’s more common among women.

Causes of TMJ disorders include:

  • An injury to your jaw
  • Certain illnesses or conditions, like arthritis
  • Grinding or clenching your teeth
  • Your jaw not lining up the way it should
  • Inflammation in the muscles around your jaw

Stress can worsen it, too.

Symptoms of TMJ disorders include:

  • Clicking sound when you open your mouth
  • Pain or ache around your ears, face, or jaw
  • Constant headaches
  • Ringing in your ears
  • Dizziness
  • Vision problems
  • Pain when you chew or a hard time chewing
  • Locking of your jaw

If you think you might have a problem with your TMJ, get it checked out. Usually, your doctor or dentist may have you take over-the-counter drugs like acetaminophen or ibuprofen for pain. They also might recommend that you exercise your jaw muscles to strengthen them, and to quit chewing gum or biting your nails. You might also get a plastic bite guard to keep you from grinding your teeth. Sometimes, you might need prescription drugs or surgery to fix the problem.

Trauma

Like any bone, you can knock your jaw out of place or break it. A blow to the jaw can cause:

Usually, over-the-counter pain medication or steps like eating soft foods will help ease your discomfort as you heal. But if the pain won’t go away, or you can’t open and close your mouth right, you’ll need medical care.

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Dental problems

A bunch of issues with your teeth can lead to jaw pain. They include:

  • A toothache, usually because of a cavity or an abscess
  • Teeth that are cracked, crowded, or sensitive to temperature or pressure
  • Gum disease, which can damage your jawbone
  • Wisdom teeth coming in
  • Misaligned teeth
  • Grinding your teeth or clenching your jaw.

See your dentist right away for these problems. Until then, you can rinse your mouth with warm water and use dental floss to get rid of any bits of food around the tooth that hurts.

Joint problems

If you have a type of arthritis known as rheumatoid arthritis, it could attack your temporomandibular joints. It’s an autoimmune disease, which means your body mistakenly attacks healthy tissue and makes it swell up. That may damage the soft, spongy cartilage that keeps your jaw moving smoothly, which can make it feel stiff and sore.

Diseases

Vaccines have largely gotten rid of diseases. But some people still get them, and the symptoms can include jaw pain.

  • Mumps . You catch it from a virus. It swells the glands on the side of your mouth that make saliva. The pain can make it hard to move your jaw.
  • Tetanus . You get this bacterial infection through a cut or a scratch on your skin. An early sign is that your jaw muscles might feel tight or stiff. The spasms are often called lockjaw. This serious illness can put you in the hospital for weeks.

Heart attack

It may sound odd, but jaw pain sometimes can signal a heart attack. Pain that starts near a cluster of nerves, like your heart, can be felt someplace else on the body. This is called referred pain. For some people, jaw pain may be the only symptom of a heart attack.

Referred pain in the jaw also may be a sign of joint problems, such as in the shoulders or the lower back.

Sinus problems

If the spaces inside your nose and under your eyes (your sinuses) stay swollen and inflamed for longer than 3 months, even with treatment, you may have a condition called chronic sinusitis. It mainly makes it hard to breathe through your nose and makes the area around your eyes feel tender, but chronic sinusitis also can cause aching in your upper jaw.

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Trigeminal neuralgia

This painful condition can happen when a blood vessel presses against the trigeminal nerve, which carries messages to your brain from your face.  It can also be caused by multiple sclerosis. Trigeminal neuralgia usually affects one side of your jaw or cheek and can feel like a stabbing pain or a jolt of electricity. The pain can be so severe that it keeps you from being able to eat or drink.

Cluster headaches

These are very painful headaches that happen in certain patterns or happen often in a short amount of time. They cause serious pain on one side of your head and often wake you up during the night. Cluster headaches usually affect the area around your eyes and temple, but the pain can spread to your jaw as well.

Osteomyelitis

This is an infection that happens in a bone. It can affect your lower jaw (or mandible), a condition called anaerobic osteomyelitis. If it’s not treated, the infection can cut off the blood supply to your jaw and permanently damage the bone tissue there.

Tumors or cysts

These are growths in your jawbone or the soft tissues in your mouth and face. Sometimes called odontogenic tumors and cysts, they’re not often cancerous, but they can grow quickly and affect your teeth. In most cases, surgery is recommended to take them out.

Jaw Pain Treatment and Home Care

Treatment for your jaw pain will depend on what’s causing it, but a few things may help with general discomfort:

  • Resting your jaw
  • Over-the-counter pain medicines, like anti-inflammatories and analgesics
  • Prescription medicines, including antidepressants for pain, or muscle relaxants
  • Cold compresses for 10 to 20 minutes at a time, 3 or 4 times a day
  • Gentle exercises to strengthen and stretch the muscles in your jaw or face
  • Ultrasound (high-powered sound waves) to help with pain and swelling
WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD on September 01, 2020

Sources

SOURCES:

American Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons: “What Is TMJ?”

National Institutes of Health: “TMJ Disorders,” “Prevalence of TMJD and its Signs and Symptoms.”

Contemporary Clinical Dentistry: “Rheumatoid arthritis affecting temporomandibular joint.”

The Cleveland Clinic: “Facial Fractures,” “Osteomyelitis.”

Montreal Children’s Hospital: “Broken jaw.”

The Mayo Clinic: “TMJ Disorders,” “Impacted Wisdom Teeth,” “Cluster Headache,” “Jaw Tumors and Cysts,” “Myofascial pain syndrome, “Chronic Sinusitis,” “Trigeminal Neuralgia.”

American Dental Association: “TMJ,” “Top Dental Symptoms,” “Dental Emergencies,” “Wisdom Teeth.”

Oral Health Foundation: “Jaw Problems and Headaches.”

Journal of Manual and Manipulative Therapy: “Management and Treatment of Temporomandibular Disorders: A Clinical Perspective.”

European Federation of Periodontology: “What is periodontitis?”

Rheumatoid Arthritis Support Network: “All About Rheumatoid Arthritis, TMJ, and Jaw Pain.”

CDC: “Mumps Cases and Outbreaks.”

National Foundation for Infectious Diseases: “Tetanus.”

American Heart Association: “Warning Signs of a Heart Attack.”

Journal of Applied Oral Science: “Referred Pain.”

SinusCure.org: “Maxillary Sinus: The Usual Entry Point of Infection.”

Johns Hopkins Medicine: “Trigeminal Neuralgia.”

UT Southwestern Medical Center: “Cluster Headache.”

National Organization for Rare Disorders: “Osteomyelitis.”

Saint Luke’s: “Pain Relief Methods for Temporomandibular Disorder.”

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