What is a broken or dislocated jaw?
A broken or dislocated jaw is an injury to one or both of the joints that connect your lower jawbone to the skull. Each of these joints is called the temporomandibular joint (TMJ). The TMJ can break, crack, or become unhinged from the skull. The unhinging of the jaw joint is known as a dislocation.
A broken, fractured, or dislocated jaw can create problems with eating and breathing. Immediate medical attention is necessary to minimize complications and accelerate healing.
Experiencing facial trauma 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
Symptoms of a broken jaw include:
- swelling, including facial swelling
- bleeding, including bleeding from the mouth
- breathing difficulties
- discomfort when chewing
- jaw stiffness
- numbness and bruising in the face
- dental-related discomfort, such as numbness in the gums or loosened teeth
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. If you have a severe jaw fracture, you might experience limited ability to move your jaw or be unable to move your jaw at all.
Numbness and bruising in the face and gums are also normal to have if your jaw is fractured or broken. Breaking 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 be different than those of a broken jaw. Pain is a factor, and it may become worse when you move your mouth or your body. Additional signs of a dislocated jaw include the following:
- Your jaw might appear to jut out too much, as in an overbite.
- You might notice that your teeth don’t line up as they usually do and your bite feels strange.
- An abnormal bite can prevent you from closing your mouth completely, and this might cause drooling.
- Speaking may be difficult.
Your doctor will diagnose a broken jaw or dislocation by asking you your history, doing a physical exam, and taking relevant X-rays. A simple dislocation could be treated by an oral surgeon or dentist. A serious fracture that requires surgery would need a specialist, such as a facial plastic and reconstructive surgeon, a head and neck surgeon, or an oral surgeon.
If you injure your jaw, it will most likely be treated as an emergency. While waiting for medical care, support your lower jaw to help stabilize it and keep your airway open.
Treating a dislocated jaw
A doctor must manipulate a dislocated jaw back into the correct position. Sometimes your doctor can do this manually. You’ll receive local anesthetics and muscle relaxants to minimize the pain and to help your jaw muscles loosen up enough to allow the manipulation. In some cases, surgery may be necessary to set the TMJ back into 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 or displaced breaks in the part of the bone that’s pushed off to one side may require surgical repair.
Wiring your jaw shut
Broken and dislocated jaws are bandaged or wired shut during recovery.
Your doctor may treat your dislocation and minor fracture simply by wrapping a bandage 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.
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 experience vomiting or choking. If the wires need to be cut, notify your doctor so they can replace the wires as soon as possible.
Recovery from a jaw fracture or dislocation requires patience. You won’t 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’ll also be on a liquid diet to provide you with nutrition during this time while you’re unable to chew solid food.
You will need to follow a soft diet as you recover from a dislocated or broken jaw. Avoid foods that are crunchy or chewy if you have a dislocation or minor fracture that will heal on its own. Items such as fresh meats, raw produce, or crunchy snack foods can cause strain and pain to your healing jaw. A soft diet that includes the following can be easy to chew:
- canned meat
- well-cooked pasta
- well-cooked rice
- canned fruit
A wired jaw will need an even more drastic dietary change. Because you won’t be able to open and close your mouth, you’ll 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 people with jaw injuries. 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. You can use oatmeal, cream of wheat, and other soft grains as the base for your meals.
Healthy eating while your jaw is wired means eating more frequently than you’re probably used to doing. Instead of eating three or four meals per day, aim for six to eight small meals. Eating small amounts throughout the day helps you meet your required calorie count. Smaller, more frequent meals can also provide a variety of flavors when you’re drinking eight smoothies each day.
Drink milk and juice to boost your calorie count. Cut back on water, coffee, tea, and diet soda. These beverages have no calories. They will not help you sustain your weight while you’re on a restrictive diet.
Eat lukewarm foods. Your teeth may be more sensitive than usual after 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 their consistency is too thick to get through a straw.
The outlook is very good for most people who experience a broken or dislocated jaw. Dislocation and nonsurgical factures heal in four to eight weeks, whereas recovery from a surgical fracture could take up to several months. In most cases, the jaw heals successfully and there are few long-term effects.
However, you’re more likely to have recurring joint pain in your jaw after your injury. This is a condition called temporomandibular joint disorder, which is also referred to as TMJ disorder. People who have dislocated their jaw may have an increased risk of a future dislocation as well. Protect your jaw from future pain or injury by supporting your chin when you sneeze or yawn.