What is jaw pain?
Jaw pain is any kind of pain or discomfort in the jaw area, which includes the lower jaw (mandible, often referred to as the jaw bone), temporomandibular joint (TMJ or jaw joint), and surrounding soft tissues. The jaw joint connects the lower jaw to the temporal bone of the skull and is responsible for bringing the lower and upper jaws together. It is one of the most frequently used joints in the body.
Depending on the underlying cause, jaw pain can occur suddenly or build up over time. You may feel a dull ache, or it may be so painful that you can’t open your mouth to eat. Jaw pain may be triggered by various activities, such as eating, swallowing or merely touching the jaw area, as is the case with trigeminal neuralgia.
One of the most common jaw pain causes is stress to the temporomandibular joint, leading to temporomandibular joint disorder, or TMD. The temporomandibular joint is immediately in front of the ear on each side of your head. Muscles, tendons, ligaments, and other soft tissues surround the joint. TMD can be caused by wear and tear, injury, or disease of the joint and surrounding soft tissue.
Jaw pain can also be a sign of various other diseases, disorders and conditions. Relatively mild conditions, such as teeth grinding, can cause jaw pain. More serious conditions include rheumatoid arthritis, infection, and neuralgia. Jaw pain is also considered one of the hallmark warning signs of a heart attack.
If you are experiencing jaw pain in conjunction with chest pain or pain that radiates to your arm and shoulder, sweating, or shortness of breath, you may be having a heart attack. This is an immediately life-threatening medical emergency. Seek immediate medical care (call 911).
What other symptoms might occur with jaw pain?
Jaw pain may be accompanied by other symptoms, depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Body systems that are seemingly unrelated to the jaw area can also be affected. For example, you may have a fever if the jaw pain is due to an infection or inflammatory process.
Symptoms that may occur along with jaw pain
Jaw pain may occur with other symptoms including:
Fatigue in the facial area
Limited ability to open your mouth wide
Popping or clicking sound while chewing or yawning
Swelling around the jaw or face
- Tooth pain
Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition
In some cases, jaw pain may occur with other symptoms that might indicate a serious or life-threatening condition, such as a heart attack, that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Symptoms that may indicate a serious or life-threatening condition include:
What causes jaw pain?
Jaw pain is a symptom of a variety of different diseases, disorders and conditions. Jaw pain location can be a clue to the cause. If you experience pain on one or both sides of your head in front of your ears, you may have temporomandibular joint disorder (TMD).
TMD is characterized by pain, tenderness, and trouble opening your mouth. TMD can be caused by behaviors, such as teeth grinding, improperly aligned teeth or bite, and age-related wear and tear on the joint and the disc that cushions the joint.
More serious conditions that lead to jaw and joint pain include rheumatoid arthritis and neuralgia.
Disorders of the joint and soft tissues that cause jaw pain
Jaw pain is a sign of inflammatory, infectious, and autoimmune processes including:
- Age-related wear and tear on the jaw joint and surrounding tissues
- Jaw alignment disorder
- Jaw dislocation or fracture
- Osteomyelitis (bone infection)
- Osteonecrosis of the jaw, or ONJ (loss of blood supply to an area of the jaw bone, usually occurring in people taking bisphosphonate medications for osteoporosis)
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Teeth grinding (bruxism)
- Temporomandibular joint disorder
Dental conditions that causes of jaw pain
Jaw pain is a sign of various dental and endodontic conditions including:
Other causes of jaw pain
Other causes of jaw pain include:
- Thyroiditis (inflammation of the thyroid gland)
- Trigeminal neuralgia (pain from the nerve responsible for sensations on your face)
Life-threatening causes of jaw pain
In some cases, jaw pain may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition including:
- Heart attack
- Oral cancer
When should you see a doctor for jaw pain?
Sudden jaw pain can be a sign of a heart attack. Call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room for jaw pain when:
You have jaw pain or tooth pain that radiates from your chest or also involves the neck, back, left shoulder, or arm.
- You have sudden crushing pain or pressure in the left shoulder.
You should also seek emergency medical care for trauma involving the jaw.
See a doctor or dentist promptly when:
You are having trouble chewing, eating, or brushing your teeth.
You cannot open or close your jaw completely.
Your jaw is tender or painful to touch.
- Your jaw pain symptoms are persistent.
How do doctors diagnose the cause of jaw pain?
To diagnose the underlying cause of jaw pain, your doctor or dentist will take a medical history and perform an exam. It may also be necessary to order tests.
Questions your doctor may ask about jaw pain
Taking a thorough medical history involves asking questions about your pain. Questions your doctor may ask include:
When did the pain start?
Where exactly is the pain?
Did the pain develop suddenly or slowly? Is it constant or intermittent?
Does the pain occur with any particular activity, such as eating or yawning?
What other symptoms are you having, such as tooth pain or clicking or popping in the jaw?
Can you open and close your jaw normally?
- When was your last dental exam?
Physical exam for jaw pain
During the physical exam, your doctor or dentist will feel your jaw and listen for sounds as you open and close it. You may also need to move your jaw from side to side. Your doctor or dentist may take measurements as you open and move your jaw.
It is important to let your doctor or dentist know if an area is tender or painful during the exam. Your dentist may perform a complete dental exam in addition to this physical exam of your jaw.
Imaging and tests for jaw pain
Depending on the results of the exam, you may need testing including:
Dental X-rays of your teeth and jaw
Other imaging exams, such as CT (computerized tomography) scan or MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), which can provide more detailed views of the bones and soft tissues
- Arthroscopy to examine the inside of the joint
It is not always possible to diagnose an underlying cause or condition. If the problem persists and your provider is unable to determine a cause, seeking a second opinion may give you more information and answers.
What are the treatments for jaw pain?
Because jaw pain is a symptom, treating it depends entirely on the underlying cause. The goals of treatment include providing jaw pain relief and correcting any physical problem that is causing the pain. In general, doctors start with conservative treatments first. Possible treatment options for jaw pain may include:
Appliances, including bite guards and oral splints
- Surgery or injection, which include a variety of procedures that vary with the underlying cause. Doctors usually reserve these options for cases when other treatments fail to provide relief.
Home remedies for jaw pain
There are several lifestyle changes and home remedies that can help relieve and prevent jaw pain. This includes:
Applying heat or cold to relieve pain
Avoiding overuse of jaw muscles by not chewing gum and limiting foods that require excess chewing, such as thick meats, sandwiches, or sticky or chewy foods
Eating soft foods and cutting food into small bites for easier chewing
Learning to be aware of and avoid tension-related habits, such as teeth clenching or grinding
Massaging the area
Practicing stretching and strengthening exercises
- Taking acetaminophen (Tylenol) or NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin)
Alternative treatments for jaw pain
Alternative, or complementary, therapies are meant to be used in addition to traditional treatments (not in place of). Some of these therapies may help people better deal with jaw pain. In general, research has shown mixed results for alternative therapies. You may have some degree of success at relieving jaw pain with the following therapies:
- Reducing stress with relaxation techniques such as deep breathing and aromatherapy
Be sure to notify your doctor if you are interested in or are using alternative therapies.
What are the potential complications of jaw pain?
Complications of jaw pain vary depending on the underlying cause. Jaw pain due to a problem with the joint itself can lead to permanent damage to the joint and surrounding tissues, necessitating jaw repair surgery and possibly jaw replacement.
Over time, jaw pain can lead to serious complications including:
- Poor nutrition and vitamin deficiencies due to difficulty eating
Because jaw pain can be due to serious diseases, failure to seek treatment can result in serious complications and permanent damage. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that you and your healthcare professional design specifically for you to reduce the risk of potential complications.