Managing Persistent Jaw Pain

By Premier Dental of Ohio

Dealing with Jaw Pain

When people experience jaw pain, it can be difficult to diagnose the underlying cause.  For our purposes in this week’s blog, we will narrow the definition of jaw pain to exclude the pain caused by dental infections.  This means that we will cover all of the potential causes of jaw pain except those related to individual tooth problems.  Many people mistakenly assume that all jaw pain is caused by a dental abscess.  While it is true that many instances of jaw pain are the result of dangerous dental infections, there are several other problems that can lead to jaw pain.

Jaw Muscle Pain

The most common type of jaw pain that people experience when you exclude dental infections is pain in the jaw muscles.  The face contains multiple skeletal muscles that function to open and close the upper and lower jaws.  The two largest muscles, which are also the most likely culprits of jaw pain, are the masseter and temporalis muscles.

The masseter muscles cover a significant portion of the sides of the face, extending from the cheekbone/ear area down to the bottom of the jaw.  You can feel the masseter muscles by placing your hands on your cheeks and squeezing your teeth together.  The movement you feel is the masseter muscles flexing.

The temporalis muscles cover a large portion of the temples, fanning out over the side of the skull, and then tapering to a narrow attachment at the base of the jaw.  You can feel this muscle by placing both hands on your temples and squeezing the teeth together.

These skeletal muscles function just as other skeletal muscles in the body do, like your biceps.  When you perform a difficult workout or a labor-intensive task that fatigues your biceps, you can expect them to be sore for a day or two.  When you overwork these jaw muscles, usually by clenching or grinding your teeth all night, you can expect the same.  This type of jaw pain can manifest itself as:

  • Tightness in the cheek muscles
  • Pain or tenderness when you clench your teeth
  • Headaches in the temple or forehead
  • Generalized aching in the facial muscles

How Can I Relieve Jaw Muscle Pain?

In the long run, you need to see your dentist for a protective mouthguard that will separate the teeth and reduce the flexing of the muscles.  We do not recommend over-the-counter mouthguards, which are generally soft and squishy in consistency.  These can actually increase muscle force and lead to more muscle pain.

You can try some gentle physical therapy exercises and stretching of the jaw muscles to help them relax when you wake up.

Some people also experience relief from prescription medication that relaxes the muscles during sleep.  It is important to be cautious with these, as they can be addictive.

Jaw Joint Pain (TMJ)

Many people mistakenly refer to this as “TMJ”, when that acronym actually means the jaw joint itself.  Everyone has two TMJs.  The correct terminology is TMD, which stands for TemporoMandibular Dysfunction or Disorder.  The jaw joints, or TMJs, are located just in front of the ears.  These complicated joints involve a ball-in-socket configuration, but they are special in that the ball comes out of the socket during normal function.

The ball of the joint is located on the mandible or lower jawbone, and the socket is a depression or concavity in the skull itself.  A small cartilage disc separates the ball from the socket, and many ligaments, tendons, and muscles attach to each of the components of the joint.  There are so many moving parts in this joint that it is not surprising so many people suffer from dysfunction.

Jaw pain that comes from the joint itself is usually a little different from jaw muscle pain.  Instead of covering a broad area of the face or jaw, most people can pinpoint the pain to the joint area.  Rather than a dull ache, joint pain can often be sharp or shooting.  Using the joint, either in chewing or speaking, can lead to pain.

This pain can also accompany some sounds in the joint.  A clicking or popping sound in the joint means that at least one of those moving parts is not functioning properly.  Jaw joint pain may also include impaired jaw function.  The pain may limit your ability to open widely or close the teeth together completely.

Pain that comes from the jaw joints may also lead to ringing in the ears, a condition known as tinnitus.

How Can I Relieve Jaw Joint Pain?

Jaw joint pain is more difficult to treat and requires a detailed evaluation of the teeth, muscles and jaws.  Some people experience relief from a mouthguard that reduces any forces of compression on the joints.  Some people will also experience relief from physical therapy exercises that reduce inflammation in the joints and help align the moving parts for healthy function.

Joint pain may require anti-inflammatory medication in cases of flare-ups, and some people even need joint surgery to repair extensive damage in the joint.

Generalized Teeth Pain

Some patients who clench or grind their teeth heavily experience a generalized pain that covers all or most of the teeth.  The excessive forces of bruxism (the scientific term for clenching and/or grinding) can cause pain in the tissues surrounding the teeth and the nerves within the teeth themselves.

Typically, this is a dull aching or sensitivity type of feeling, and it covers a large number of teeth.

How Can I Relieve Generalized Teeth Pain?

This type of pain often responds well to wearing a nightguard consistently and removing the pressure from the teeth and the supporting tissues.  Some patients also need daytime habit-breaking therapy for subconscious clenching or grinding throughout the day.

Chronic Pain Syndromes

In some cases of jaw pain, the patient suffers from one of several chronic pain syndromes, such as fibromyalgia, trigeminal neuralgia or CRPS (Complex Regional Pain Syndrome).  These syndromes can cause severe and chronic pain in the jaw region that is very similar to the pain caused by TMJ disorder and heavy bruxism.  However, because these pain syndromes have their origin somewhere outside of the jaws, your dentist is actually not the best one to treat this type of jaw pain.  Your dentist is the one to rule out the other causes first, though.

How Can I Relieve Chronic Pain?

Once your dentist rules out the more common types of jaw pain, he or she will refer you to a neurologist or other type of pain specialist to diagnose and treat your atypical jaw pain.

More Questions about Jaw Pain?

Call your nearest Premier Dental of Ohio location today to schedule an evaluation with one of our skilled dentists.  We can assess your situation and diagnose the source of your jaw pain, as well as help you in managing the pain through home care and dental treatment as needed.

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