Jaw pain can be a complicated symptom to assess and treat because it can stem from a variety of issues. The intensity of the pain can range from occasional and inconvenient to constant and debilitating, and explanations can include anything from trauma to teeth-grinding. Therefore, the diagnostic process necessitates a trial and error approach based on your specific symptoms, lifestyle and history. If your jaw pain is recurring or constant, it’s best to seek treatment.

Does my jaw pain mean I have TMJ/TMD?

Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder (also known as TMD or TMJD) affects 3.6–7 percent of the U.S. population and typically affects younger adults (which is uncommon in most chronic pain disorders). About a third of the population experiences at least one symptom, according to a 2018 study from the American Academy of Orofacial Pain.

Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder (also known as TMD or TMJD) affects 3.6–7 percent of the U.S. population and typically affects younger adults (which is uncommon in most chronic pain disorders). About a third of the population experiences at least one symptom, according to a 2018 study from the American Academy of Orofacial Pain.

The definition of TMJ/TMD encompasses a range of experiences, but generally it refers to a dysfunction of the jaw joint and associated muscles that can cause significant pain, stiffness and even long-term damage if left untreated.

Signs you might have TMJ/TMD include:

  • Worn, broken or chipped teeth
  • Sounds of clicking, popping or grating when opening and closing
  • Pain of the jaw joint and/or muscles (ranging from infrequent to constant and debilitating)
  • Limited opening of the mouth
  • Grinding of the teeth
  • Chronic headaches
  • Neck, shoulder, and/or back pain
  • Stiff or sore jaw muscles

Why is my jaw clicking or popping? Is that a problem?

If you’re experiencing a clicking or popping when you open or close your mouth, it’s typically the sound and sensation of a cartilage disk being moved out of or into place when you open and close. It’s related to the movement of the condyle (a part of the bottom jaw like the “ball” part of a ball-and-socket joint) and the disk (which acts as a shock absorber and lubricant for the rotation and translation movements the condyle makes in the fossa [the “socket”]). The popping or clicking often happens when someone makes a very wide opening movement (like yawning), but in more extreme cases, it can happen during normal speaking and chewing.

Source: Physiopedia

Why do I have joint pain?

Unstable jaw joint positions and pain can result from many different causes: trauma, improper craniofacial development, breathing disorders like sleep apnea, misaligned teeth, degenerative disorders, and pathology. As with most issues, ideal treatment depends on the cause. Some people find relief with chiropractic adjustments. Some are dependent on night guards or daytime splints to keep them from clenching or to reposition the condyle. Sometimes altering tooth position by moving teeth (orthodontics) is necessary.  Sometimes instead of moving teeth, dental work is performed to alter the shape, height or length of teeth and how they function together to promote a healthier joint position and muscle function. Talk to your dentist to figure out your best plan of action.

Why is my jaw “locking”?

Jaws can actually get ‘locked’ in two different ways: open or closed.  When a jaw is stuck in the closed position, it is either due to a muscle spasm/tension or the cartilage disk being out of position, which can prevent normal opening movement. Treatment for a closed “lock” can be difficult. If muscle trauma or spasms are to blame, it can take a while to regain normal opening. The use of muscle relaxers, anti-inflammatories, stretching, and warm moist heat will help. If the disk is preventing normal opening movements, manipulating the jaw to slide past the interference or reposition the disk usually is effective. 

If the jaw gets stuck in the open position, the bottom jaw is moving too far forward, sliding beyond the articular eminence (part of the skull’s temporal bone, on which the condyle slides) and getting stuck on the other side. This lock can be easily fixed by manually pulling the jaw downward and forward, letting it slide back into its normal place. If this occurs frequently, it may be a sign of a loose joint, stretched ligaments or jaw instability.

How do I know what’s causing my jaw pain?

The best way to figure out how to treat your jaw pain is by talking to your dentist. In general, there are two primary sources of pain to be he or she will consider: the muscles or the joint.

There are many methods to determine whether the cause of your symptoms are joint, muscle, or both. At Nashville Restorative Dentistry we often use a diagnostic temporary splint called a Kois Deprogrammer for two weeks to relax the muscles and stabilize the joint position. If symptoms improve, we can then move on to deciding between simply managing symptoms long term or attempting to treat the cause of the pain. 

Treatment options for managing symptoms may include a properly designed night guard and/or a daytime splint. Options for treating the causes of the pain (if bite-related) would include a bite equilibration in the current tooth position or redesigning the way the teeth fit and function together by moving teeth (orthodontics) or changing the shape of teeth (bonding / onlays / crowns) with a more permanent solution like a permanent splint or night guard to better align the bite. Typically we have to focus on equilibrating the bite on the current tooth position or reeling the teeth and how they function, through orthodontics or dental work.

The other primary cause of symptoms is an issue with the jaw joint itself. The intensity of treatment varies greatly, but the initial goal is often to alter the joint position so that it becomes pain-free. This can initially be accomplished with a specially designed splint, but long-term relief at times may require orthodontics and/or surgery on the joint. If you think you might have joint-related jaw pain, talk to a dentist as soon as you can. Putting off diagnosis and treatment increases the risk of long-term damage to the bones or disks of the jaw joint. The sooner you address the issue, the more likely you are to avoid permanent damage.

What do I do about my jaw pain?

If left untreated, TMJ/TMD can cause permanent damage to the bones or disk in your jaw joint. Even if it’s not constant or debilitating, if you have recurring jaw pain it is important to figure out what is causing it. Jaw pain is a complicated problem with many causes, so long-term healing requires careful diagnosis and intentional treatment plans. 

We know how debilitating jaw pain can be and believe you deserve to live without it. At Nashville Restorative Dentistry, we listen to your needs and create a unique treatment plan that supports your full rehabilitation.

Take the first step to getting your life back by booking a consultation today. Call Nashville Restorative Dentistry at 615-591-0294 to schedule an appointment, or click here for a free virtual consult.