As there are so many potential causes to jaw pain, correct diagnosis is vital. Doctors need to identify the exact cause in order to provide the best course of pain-relieving treatments.
Teeth grinding and arthritis may be causes of jaw pain but the most commonly reported is temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ).
There are several possible causes of jaw pain and these may be related to physical injury, nerve problems, or blood vessel problems.
The most commonly reported cause of jaw pain is temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ). The condition affects up to 12 percent of people. Nearly 5 percent seek medical treatment due to the severity of the problem. Women of childbearing age are most commonly affected by TMJ.
TMJ collectively describes disorders of the temporomandibular joints, and the muscles responsible for jaw movement. These muscles are known as the masticatory muscles.
Other known causes of jaw or facial pain include conditions, such as:
- Teeth grinding, clenching, or opening the mouth too wide: Most often, teeth grinding and clenching is experienced during sleep and can lead to tooth damage and jaw pain. It can also occur during periods of increased emotional stress.
- Osteomyelitis: This is a condition where an infection in the body affects the bones and associated tissues.
- Arthritis: Arthritic conditions, such as osteoarthritis and osteoarthrosis, which lead to the surface of bones wearing away.
- Synovitis or capsulitis: These are conditions in which the lining of the joint or a connecting ligament becomes inflamed.
- Dental conditions: These can include gum disease, cavities, tooth gaps, damaged teeth, or abscesses.
- Sinus problems: These affect the nasal cavities.
- Tension type headaches: Tension headaches are typically caused by stress and may lead to facial pain.
- Neuropathic pain: This type of long-term pain occurs when nerves become damaged and send pain signals to the brain. This pain can be continuous or occur from time to time.
- Vascular pain: This type of pain occurs when the supply of blood to part of the body is disrupted. It is caused by conditions that include giant cell arteritis and carotid artery dissection.
- Neurovascular pain: This type of pain is caused by conditions that affect both the nerves and the blood vessels, such as migraine and cluster headaches.
Pain can also be caused by lifestyle-related factors, including emotional stress, sleep disturbances, a lack of certain nutrients, or tiredness.
Jaw pain symptoms may include facial pain, earache, jaw locking, toothache, and facial swelling.
The presenting symptoms of jaw pain vary depending on the cause. They may include:
- facial pain that worsens when the jaw is used
- joint and muscle tenderness
- limited range of motion
- jaw alignment issues
- clicking or popping sounds with opening or closing of the jaw
- ringing in the ears
- headaches with or without ear pain and pressure behind the eyes
- jaw locking
- dull aching to sharp stabbing pain
- becoming overly sensitive to pain
- tension headaches
- nerve-type pain, such as burning
- facial swelling
Other symptoms may be present and these will depend on the root cause of the jaw pain.
It is important for people to seek prompt medical attention in order to work out the cause of their pain so that a treatment plan can be determined. Doing so swiftly can help prevent long-term complications from occurring. Dentists, oral surgeons, and doctors are able to evaluate jaw pain.
Complications vary based on the cause and other factors associated with your pain, including the treatments that are used. They may include:
- dental complications
- surgical complications
- chronic pain
- emotional distress
- changes in eating habits
In order for a doctor to diagnose and treat the cause of jaw pain, they will need to perform certain tests.
The following tests may help them to find out more about the cause of jaw pain, including:
- physical exam, including assessment of the nerves, neck bones, jaw, mouth, and muscles
- complete medical and pain history
- certain laboratory tests, such as an erythrocyte sedimentation rate blood test, used in the diagnosis of conditions involving pain
- certain radiology imaging procedures, such as X-ray or MRI
- psychological and psychiatric screening
Other tests may be needed if a clinician suspects that the jaw pain is caused by a particular disease. They will discuss what they recommend for diagnosing the cause of any jaw pain as necessary.
If the cause of jaw pain is an infection, antibiotics may be prescribed by a healthcare professional.
Treatment of jaw pain depends on what the cause is. Treatment methods are varied and may include the following:
- antibiotics if the jaw pain is caused by an infection
- surgery to remove damaged bone, treat an affected nerve, or to diagnose the problem
- use of a mouth protector, such as a mouth guard
- physical therapy
- muscle relaxants or tranquilizers to aid in relaxing the affected muscles
- antidepressants, which can sometimes help treat painful conditions
- topical capsaicin, which is helpful in treating some nerve-related conditions
- steroid injections to decrease inflammation or swelling
- antiviral therapy to treat viral infections, such as herpes zoster
- pain medication
- oxygen therapy and some prescription medications to treat cluster headaches
- certain blood pressure medications when migraines are being treated
- root canal treatment, a procedure to treat infections within teeth
- tooth extraction if the cause is from an abnormal or infected tooth
- vapo-coolant spray to relieve painful areas of muscle, called trigger points
- injections with local anesthetics
- stretching to stretch and sooth the affected muscles
- relaxation therapy
- soft diet to avoid excessive jaw movement and crunching
- moist heat application or cold therapy
- massage or acupuncture
- use of correct posture to avoid neck and back strain
Other treatments are available to treat jaw pain, and their use is determined by the cause of the pain. Doctors can discuss the best method for treating pain with each person, based on their unique situation.
Knowing the trigger of any jaw pain is important to prevent the pain from returning.
Some basic preventive measures may be useful, and these include:
- avoiding crunchy foods, gum, chewing fingernails, or other hard objects
- eating soft or liquid foods, such as soup or pasta
- taking smaller bites of food
- avoiding caffeine
- trying massage, meditation, and aerobic exercise
- taking calcium and magnesium supplements, if appropriate
- avoiding yawning
- sleeping on the back or side, avoiding stomach sleeping
- avoiding grinding teeth
- avoiding carrying bags on the shoulders for too long, switching shoulders frequently
- using correct posture
- seeking regular dental care
People should always speak to their doctor to determine the safety of any preventive measure to ensure it is appropriate for their unique situation.
When to see the doctor
It may be necessary for people to seek medical care for jaw pain if they are experiencing symptoms, such as:
- failure of home remedies to treat jaw pain
- jaw pain that interferes with a daily routine
- irregular jaw motion
- jaw joints making sounds when moving
- neck or upper back pain
- eye pain
- ringing in the ear
- dental problems, such as broken or worn teeth
People should speak with a dentist or doctor about jaw pain in order for diagnosis and treatment of the underlying condition.
Written by Lori Smith BSN MSN CRNP