Jaw pain is no fun. It can make essential activities, like eating and speaking, difficult. There are many things that can cause your jaw to hurt, from benign things like clenching your teeth because you’re stressed, to more serious things like osteoporosis or oral cancers. Luckily, the vast majority of cases of jaw pain have common causes that are treatable.
When to Seek Help for Jaw Pain
Most jaw pain goes away on its own within a week or two, but if the pain persists and home remedies have not helped, it may be time to seek professional help. Signs your jaw pain needs to be dealt with by an oral specialist include:
- pain that interferes with your daily routine
- unusual and/or uncomfortable jaw motion
- a sound when you move your jaw
- pain accompanied by neck, upper back, eye/head pain
- ringing in the ear
- is the obvious result of broken or worn teeth
More serious indications your jaw pain is due to an underlying medical condition include:
- facial swelling
- tenderness in the muscles/joints of your face, jaw and/or neck
- neuropathic pain, such as tingling or burning
Causes of Jaw Pain
There are many causes of jaw pain, including:
- gum disease
- tooth decay
- teeth grinding, clenching, or opening the mouth too wide
- dislocation or injury; this could involve a displaced disc, muscle injury, or jaw dislocation
- osteomyelitis, an infection affecting the bones and associated tissues
- synovitis, which inflames the lining of the joint or a connecting ligament
- sinus problems
- tension headaches
- neuropathic pain
- vascular pain, when the blood supply is disrupted
- neurovascular pain from migraine or cluster headaches
Diagnosing Your Jaw Pain
It can be difficult to determine the cause of jaw pain. If you’re wondering why many of these causes and symptoms involve the ears and sinuses, it’s because the maxillofacial structures that make up your head, face and neck are all intricately interconnected.
For instance, have you ever noticed that your teeth hurt when you have a sinus headache? Or that you get dizzy when you have a migraine? Since all these systems work together, oral surgeons and doctors alike sometimes have difficulty pinning down exactly what’s causing your jaw pain, if it’s not obvious, of course.
Your health practitioner will probably take a medical and pain history first. Next, a physical exam to assess the nerves, neck bones, jaw, mouth, and muscles. Finally, lab tests, imaging procedures and/or psychological and psychiatric screenings may be required. In rare cases, orofacial surgery may be need to diagnose the problem.
Once a cause is determined, treatment can begin.
Treatments for Jaw Pain
Facial pain caused by a minor injury may be relieved by over-the-counter pain medications like Tylenol and Advil, eating soft foods, and applying ice packs or moist heat. Avoid moving your jaw in any extreme way. Take it easy on your mouth. If it hurts, don’t do it!
Jaw pain is often a result of stress. When we’re under pressure, we tend to physically express that by subconsciously clenching our jaw and/or grinding our teeth. To unwind and better relax your mouth, exercises to gently stretch the jaw may help. Exercises to improve your posture to avoid neck and back strain may also be useful.
Other treatments include:
- surgery to remove damaged bone or treat an affected nerve
- a mouth guard
- physical therapy
- muscle relaxants or tranquilizers
- topical capsaicin
- steroid injections
- antiviral therapy
- oxygen therapy
- blood pressure medications
- vapo-coolant spray to relieve painful muscles
- injections with local anesthetics
- massage or acupuncture
If the root cause of your jaw pain is gum disease, cavities, tooth gaps, damaged teeth, or abscesses, you will be referred to a dentist or oral surgeon.
Preventing Jaw Pain from Coming Back
Once your jaw pain has gone, you want to keep it from coming back. Here are some basic jaw pain prevention measures:
- avoid hard foods
- take small bites
- avoid caffeine
- practice massage, meditation, and/or aerobic exercise to relieve stress
- take calcium and magnesium supplements if needed
- sleep on your back or side
- when carrying heavy bags on your shoulder, switch shoulders often
Getting an annual check-up at your doctor’s, and seeing your dentist twice a year for routine cleanings can also help prevent jaw and other health problems. Depending on the situation, you may be referred to an oral surgeon. Whatever happens, don’t worry; most cases of jaw pain are easily alleviated and simple to keep from coming back.