Jaw pain can be a debilitating condition that affects your ability to eat and speak. Many things can cause jaw pain, from your sinuses and ears to your teeth or jaw itself. This means it can be difficult to tell if your jaw pain is because of a jaw issue or something else.
Most jaw pain is due to an abnormality or injury to the joint of your jaw, but there are other possible causes as well. Here are some of the causes of jaw pain:
1. Temporomandibular joint and muscle disorder (TMD)
Several things can cause TMD jaw pain. It’s also possible to experience TMD due to several causes at the same time. Causes of TMD include:
- pain from the muscles that control jaw movement
- injury to the jaw joint
- excess stimulation of the jaw joint
- a displaced disc that usually helps cushion the movements of the jaw
- arthritis of the protective disc that cushions the jaw joint
Damage to the jaw joint or the muscles that control your jaw movement can be caused by several factors, including:
- grinding your teeth at night
- involuntarily clenching your jaw due to stress and anxiety
- trauma to the jaw joint, such as getting hit in the face while playing sports
There are also less common causes of jaw pain. These include:
2. Cluster headaches
Cluster headaches typically cause pain behind or around one of the eyes, but the pain can radiate to the jaw. Cluster headaches are one of the most painful types of headache.
3. Sinus problems
The sinuses are air-filled cavities located close to the jaw joint. If the sinuses become infected with a germ, such as a virus or bacterium, the result can be an excess of mucus that puts pressure on the jaw joint, causing pain.
4. Tooth pain
Sometimes severe tooth infections known as dental abscesses can cause referred pain that radiates to the jaw.
5. Trigeminal neuralgia
Trigeminal neuralgia is a condition that’s most commonly caused by nerve compression on the trigeminal nerve that provides sensation to a large portion of the face, including the upper and lower jaws.
6. Heart attack
A heart attack can cause pain in other areas of the body besides the chest, like the arms, back, neck, and jaw. Women in particular may experience jaw pain on the left side of their faces during a heart attack. Call 911 immediately and ask to be taken to the hospital if you experience the following symptoms:
- chest discomfort
- shortness of breath
- feeling faint
How to find relief
For immediate relief
Apply moist heat or ice packs: Place ice in a plastic bag, wrap it in a thin cloth, and apply it to your face for 10 minutes. Then take it off for 10 minutes before reapplying it. Another option is to run warm water over a washcloth, then apply it to your jaw area. The moist heat can relax overactive jaw muscles and relieve pain. You may have to re-wet the washcloth several times to maintain the heat.
You can also use heat or ice packs purchased at a pharmacy. However, they should be covered in cloth at all times, or they could burn your skin. If it feels too hot or too cold, remove it.
Over-the-counter pain relievers: Medicines like ibuprofen and acetaminophen may help to reduce discomfort.
Massage the affected joint: Using your index and middle finger, press the sore areas of your jaw, such as the area right before your ear where your jaw joints meet. Rub in a circular motion for 5 to 10 rotations, then open your mouth and repeat the exercise. Massaging the muscles on the side of your neck may also help relieve tension.
Here’s another massage technique you can try to relieve your jaw pain (tap the arrows to see all four videos):
Video via Adam Leavens, RMT, BCSI
Lifestyle strategies to reduce jaw pain long-term
Stress reduction: Try stress-relieving techniques to reduce jaw clenching. These could include:
These activities may help you reduce your jaw pain if it’s caused by stress.
Avoid chewy foods: Foods that are chewy, tough, or crunchy can place too great a strain on your jaw joint and lead to pain and discomfort later. Foods to avoid include:
- beef jerky
- chewing gum
Avoid caffeine: Your morning cup of joe could be contributing to your muscle tension, which can be increased by caffeine. Avoiding large amounts of caffeinated coffee and tea may help reduce your jaw pain over time, but you may initially feel muscle tension from caffeine withdrawal when cutting it out of your diet.
Most doctors will first recommend non-invasive treatment methods for your jaw pain. If you still have jaw pain after trying these methods, you should talk to your dentist. You may need further interventions to find relief for your pain.
Mouthguard: A mouthguard is a plastic dental protector worn on your upper or lower teeth that’s custom-fitted for your mouth. Although you can purchase one at a pharmacy, a dentist will make you one that may fit better and last longer. Wearing one at bedtime can help stop you from unconsciously grinding your teeth.
Muscle relaxers: If your pain doesn’t respond to the mouthguard, your dentist may prescribe muscle relaxers to relieve jaw tension. However, these don’t always help people with TMD.
Botox injections: More invasive treatment methods include Botox cosmetic injections. When injected into the jaw muscles, the botulinum toxin found in Botox may keep your jaw muscles from clenching, possibly helping to relieve jaw pain due to TMD. These injections will last for months at a time and may require re-injection later.
Jaw surgery: In very rare instances, a doctor will recommend jaw surgery to correct TMD problems. This treatment is usually reserved for people with severe pain and pain that’s due to structural problems in the jaw joint.