The temporal bone of the skull is connected to the mandible (jaw bone) via two temporomandibular joints (TMJ) – one on either side of the head. Temporomandibular joint and muscle disorder (TMD) is the most common cause of jaw pain. Various medical and non-medical procedures are available to help alleviate symptoms of jaw pain.
Symptoms of jaw pain
Although jaw pain is a leading symptom of TMJ disorders, other sensations in the mouth, jaw, head, and neck may also be linked. Flare-ups of TMJ may last for up to several days to several weeks. What is important to remember is that jaw pain caused by TMJ disorders can become worse over time without treatment.
Symptoms of TMJ disorder include:
- Unexplained pain in the jaw
- Pain in the face that cannot be explained
- Ear pain – dull or aching pain in and around the ears
- Jaw locking – difficulty in opening the mouth to its full extent
- Pain or tenderness in the muscles connecting the jaw to the skull
- Pain while chewing (patients may notice having undergone a subtle change in dietary preferences – favouring softer foods that do not cause as much pain when chewing)
- Headaches in the cheek, temporal area or the base of skull
Please note that an additional relatively minor symptom of suffering from a TMJ disorder is a clicking or grating sound when opening or closing the mouth. However, where the patient does not experience pain or any limitation on movement in the jaw, the symptoms will rarely require treatment – always seek professional dental help if unsure.
Causes of jaw pain
Jaw pain linked to TMJ disorders require specific diagnoses on a case by case basis. This is because symptoms have the potential to be linked to a range of factors – examples include congenital disorders (abnormal development), traumatic disorders (such as a fracture or dislocation), different inflammatory disorders, or types or arthritis.
Causes of jaw pain linked to TMJ include:
- Erosion or displacement of the temporomandibular joint disc
- Trigeminal neuralgia
- Tooth pain
The temporomandibular joint disc is a fibrocartilaginous ‘cushion’ that sits between the jaw bone and the skull, allowing normal and smooth movement of the mouth without grinding the bones of the jaw against the adjoining temporal skull bone. Erosion or displacement of the disc can lead to jaw pain and symptoms of TMJ disorder (or ‘TMD’).
The trigeminal nerves enter the face near to the ear, giving sensation to the mouth, lips, face, forehead, etc. Compression of the nerve can mimic some of the symptoms of TMD.
Jaw pain caused by a severe below the gumline infection (known as a dental abscess) can radiate into the jaw, causing pain and presenting symptoms of TMJ disorder.
Certain types of headaches can be caused by a misalignment of the jaw – over time, chewing and talking can result in radiating pain and symptoms of TMJ disorder.
Patients may also be at increased risk of suffering jaw pain and symptoms of a TMJ disorder if teeth grinding (typically while asleep) and stress are risk factors in the patient’s life.
How to treat jaw pain & TMJ disorders
Patients experiencing pain or tenderness in the jaw (or any inability to move the jaw within the full range of motion – i.e. fully open/closed) should seek professional medical assistance from a dentist. Raising the issue early will ultimately help in ruling out as many factors as possible in as short a time period as possible, leading to a more timely diagnosis and faster treatment(s).
- Mouthguard (soft or hard ‘occlusal’ splint)
- Limited use of prescribed muscle relaxants
- Surgery may be recommended in certain cases
The dentist will be able to recommend a soft or hard occlusal splint, which is a mouthguard used when sleeping to ensure proper jaw alignment and to prevent grinding.
The dentist may choose to prescribe a short course of muscle relaxants to help encourage the jaw to loosen, giving jaw pain relief.
Although rare, surgical procedures to alleviate symptoms of jaw pain may be recommended by the dentist – this is typically for severe instances of pain only.
Another potential treatment in alleviating jaw pain and symptoms of TMJ disorder is Botox injections. The dentist will advise the patient on suitability for this procedure. The injections, which, depending on the prescription may last for several months, will prevent the muscles from clenching, alleviating symptoms of pain in the jaw.
How to reduce symptoms and risk of jaw pain and TMJ disorders
As previously stated, patients experiencing symptoms of jaw pain and TMJ disorders should seek expert medical advice. Aside from medical treatments, there are several home remedies that patients may wish to attempt in order to reduce symptoms or to reduce the risk of returning or repetitive episodes of jaw pain.
- Yoga (or other calming hobbies)
- Remove chewy foods
- Avoid caffeinated drinks
- Stretch the mouth muscles
- Perform regular gentle shoulder rolls
Yoga, meditation, or hobbies and crafts may help to alleviate symptoms of stress, leading to a lowered likelihood of teeth grinding and jaw clenching.
Chewy foods can cause symptoms of TMJ disorder by overworking the jaw muscles. Avoid chewy meats, chewing gum, ‘gummy’ sweets, fibrous fruits, etc.
Over indulgence in caffeinated drinks can lead to tension in the body, particularly in the neck and jaw, which can lead to a sore jaw and symptoms of TMJ.
Gently open and close the mouth repeatedly, taking care not to over extend the muscles. This will help to free up any tension in the jaw, mouth, and TMJ muscles.
The muscles in the jaw, head, and neck are connected, meaning tension in the shoulders and head could contribute towards symptoms of jaw joint pain.