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Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) causes pain and inflammation in the joints. When RA affects the jaw, it often causes tenderness, stiffness, and pain when chewing. In advanced stages, the joint may be painful and make noises when moving.
Jaw involvement is common in people with RA whose disease is not well controlled. Although estimates of its prevalence vary widely between 2 and 88% of people with RA, only a small number of people experience symptoms.
RA usually affects the joints symmetrically so people may notice the symptoms in both sides of the jaw.
In this article, we examine how RA can affect the jaw, its symptoms, diagnosis, and ways to relieve RA related jaw pain.
RA is a chronic inflammatory autoimmune disease that causes the immune system to attack healthy cells and tissues in and around the joints.
Although RA commonly affects the hands, wrist, and knees, it can also cause inflammation in the temporomandibular joint (TMJ), or jaw joint. If there is jaw involvement, it usually occurs later on in the course of the disease.
The inflammation due to RA can lead to pain and stiffness in the jaw, which can interfere with a person’s ability to eat, drink, speak, and sleep. RA can also interrupt jaw development in children.
Jaw pain rarely develops in the early stages of RA. People with RA should inform their rheumatologist if they experience pain in new areas.
The symptoms of RA in the jaw include:
- an aching jaw
- pain, tenderness, or stiffness in the jaw joint
- a grinding, creaking, or crunching sound, known as crepitation
- limited range of motion
- decreased joint space
- erosion or bone loss on the affected joint
- misalignment of the jaw in advanced cases
At times, jaw stiffness can make it difficult to chew.
A rheumatologist will diagnose RA jaw pain based on a person’s medical history as well as their current diagnosis and symptoms. They may also run one or more diagnostic tests to validate their diagnosis.
Diagnostic tests for RA jaw pain include:
- physical examination of the jaw and mouth
- X-rays of the jaw joint
- MRI scans
- blood tests to measure antibody levels and to rule out infections
People who experience RA in their jaw have usually experienced symptoms of the condition in other joints before they experience it in the jaw joint.
RA can also cause symptoms outside the joints. The general symptoms of RA include:
Controlling the disease itself will help reduce RA jaw pain. Typically, doctors prescribe medications to help prevent tissue damage and slow the disease from progressing.
Medications that reduce inflammation, such as steroids and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), can reduce painful inflammation in the jaw and elsewhere.
Because RA medication generally slows down or stops the progression of RA, it also reduces symptoms and can prevent permanent joint damage.
Prescription medications can include:
- disease modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs)
- biologic medications, including tumor necrosis factor-alpha inhibitors (TNF-alpha inhibitors)
Certain jaw exercises may also help to relieve the symptoms. Speak to a doctor about the best types of exercises to do and when to do them, as overusing the jaw can make symptoms worse. Always warm up the jaw muscles first to prevent injury.
A rheumatologist may also refer a person to an oral medicine specialist to evaluate and manage TMJ pain.
Home remedies can help with the immediate symptoms of jaw pain. However, home remedies alone are not enough to treat RA. Even with mild symptoms, prolonged inflammation can still lead to permanent tissue damage, so it is important to keep taking prescribed RA medication.
People can use the following methods to help relieve RA jaw pain at home:
- applying a hot or cold compress
- eating soft foods or switch to a liquid diet for a few days
- avoiding crunchy, sticky, or chewy foods, such as nuts, croutons, caramel, and gum
- avoiding opening the mouth too wide during flares
- avoiding clenching the jaw
- wearing a mouthguard at night. Mouthguards are available for purchase online.
RA causes inflammation, pain, and swelling in the synovial fluid between joints. In later stages of the condition, RA can affect the jaw.
Inflammation of the jaw can lead to persistent pain and a limited range of mobility. If left untreated, inflammation can damage the surrounding cartilage and bone tissue, which can lead to permanent damage.
Controlling RA with medications can reduce RA related jaw pain. Different medications work better for different individuals, and people can speak with their doctor about the best course of treatment.
Eating hard, crunchy food or clenching the jaw can worsen RA jaw pain during flares. People can consider eating soft foods and applying a hot or cold compress to reduce jaw pain at home.