A broken or dislocated jaw is an injury to the joints that join the lower jawbone to the skull. These joints, called the temporomandibular joints, can break, crack, or become “unhinged” from the skull. The unhinging of the jaw joints is referred to as a dislocation.
Broken, fractured, or dislocated jaws can create problems with eating and breathing. Immediate medical attention is required to minimize complications and accelerate healing.
Experiencing a facial injury is the primary cause of a broken or dislocated jaw. The jawbone extends from your chin to behind your ear. Common types of injury that can cause fractures or dislocations in the jawbone are:
- physical assault in the face
- sports injuries
- vehicle accidents
- accidental falls in the home
- industrial or workplace accidents
Pain, swelling, and bleeding are the most immediate symptoms of a broken jaw. Your entire face can swell, making your jaw painful and stiff. Bleeding from the mouth can occur, causing breathing difficulties in some people. The blood flow can block your airways. You may experience the most pain and tenderness when chewing or speaking. During a severe jaw fracture, you might not be able to move your jaw much, if at all.
Numbness and bruising in the face and gums is also normal for a broken or fractured jaw. The breaking of the bone can cause other abnormalities with the shape of your face. You might notice that your jaw or face has a lumpy appearance. The impact of your injury could also cause loosened or lost teeth.
The signs of a dislocated jaw can differ than those of a broken jaw. Pain is a factor, and may become worse when you move your mouth or your body. Your jaw might visibly look abnormal by jutting out too much, as in an overbite. You might notice that your teeth do not line up normally, and your bite feels strange. Your abnormal bite can prevent you from closing your mouth completely, and this could cause drooling. Speaking may be difficult.
Your doctor will diagnose a jaw break or dislocation with a physical examination and an X-ray.
Chances are that if you injure your jaw, it will be treated as an emergency. While waiting for medical care to arrive, you should support your lower jaw to help stabilize it and keep your airway open.
Treating a Dislocated Jaw
A dislocated jaw must be manipulated back into the correct position. Sometimes your doctor can do this manually. You will be given local anesthetics and muscle relaxants to minimize the pain and to help your jaw muscles loosen up to allow the manipulation. In some cases, surgery may be required to set the temporomandibular joints in the normal position.
Treating a Broken Jaw
Treatment for a jaw fracture or break might also require surgery, depending on the extent of the injury. Clean breaks may heal on their own while your jaw is immobilized. Multiple fractures of the jawbone, as well as displaced breaks in which part of the bone is pushed off to one side, may be grounds for surgical repair.
Wiring Your Jaw Shut
Broken and dislocated jaws are bandaged or wired shut during recovery.
Dislocations and minor fractures may be treated simply with a bandage that is wrapped around your head and under your chin to keep you from opening your jaw wide. Anti-inflammatory medications such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) and naproxen (Aleve) can dull the pain and reduce swelling.
However, severe breaks might require wiring to promote healing. Wires and elastic bands keep your jaw closed and your bite in place. Keep a pair of scissors or wire cutters in your home during your recovery. The tools will allow you to open the wires if you suffer from vomiting and/or choking. If the wires need to be cut, your healthcare provider should be notified so they can be replaced as soon as possible.
Recovery for a jaw fracture or dislocation requires patience. You will not be able to open your jaw very wide (or at all) for at least six weeks during treatment. Your doctor will prescribe painkillers and antibiotics to prevent infection. You will also be put on a liquid diet to provide you with nutrition during this time, since you won’t be able to chew solid food..
You will need to follow a soft diet as you recover from a dislocated or broken jaw. If you suffer from a dislocation or minor fracture that will heal on its own, you will be advised to avoid foods that are crunchy or chewy. Items such as fresh meats, raw produce, or crunchy snack foods can cause strain and pain to your healing jaw. A soft diet of canned meats, well-cooked pastas and rices, soups, and canned fruit can be easy to chew.
A broken or wired jaw diet will lead to an even more drastic dietary change. Because you won’t be able to open and close your mouth, you will need to get your daily allowance of vitamins and minerals through a straw during your recovery. Getting enough calories can be a concern for some jaw injury patients. Pureed foods prepared with whole milk or cream can help add calories when needed. Pureeing fruits, vegetables, and well-cooked meats can give you the protein and other nutrients you need to stay healthy. Oatmeal, cream of wheat, and other soft grains can provide the base for your meals.
Healthy eating while your jaw is wired means eating more frequently than you are probably used to. Instead of three or four main meals each day, aim for six to eight “mini meals.” Eating small amounts throughout the day helps you keep up with your required calorie count. Smaller, more frequent meals can also provide a variety of flavors when you are essentially drinking eight smoothies each day.
Drink milk and juice to boost your calorie count, while cutting back on water, coffee, tea, and diet soda. These “zero calorie” beverages will not help you sustain your weight while you are on a restrictive diet.
Eat lukewarm foods. Your teeth may be more sensitive than usual since your injury, and extreme temperatures on either side of the spectrum can hurt. Consider choosing baby food to accommodate your need for vitamins. Use water or milk to thin heavier soups, gravies, or jarred foods if the consistency is too thick to get through a straw.
Outlook is very good for most people who suffer from broken or dislocated jaws. In most cases, the jaw heals successfully and there are few long-term effects.
However, you are more likely to suffer from recurring joint pain in your jaw after your injury. This is a condition called temporomandibular joint disorder, or TMJ. People who have dislocated their jaw may have an increased risk of a future dislocation as well (NIH, 2011). Protect your jaw from future pain or injury by supporting your chin when you sneeze or yawn.