Sudden pain on one side of your jaw can be alarming, but it’s usually not serious. You might worry about dental issues such as a cavity or abscessed tooth or wonder if you’ve been grinding your teeth at night.
There are several possible causes of one-sided jaw pain. Here, we’ll go over some of the main causes, note other symptoms to look for, and let you know when it might be time to see your doctor or dentist.
Generally, jaw pain on one side isn’t cause for immediate concern. But in rare cases, it can be an early sign of a heart attack. Anyone can experience this symptom, but it does occur more commonly in women.
If you’re having a heart attack, you’ll likely have some other signs along with jaw pain, including:
- pressure or pain in your chest that goes away when you rest but keeps coming back
- tightness, pain, and pressure in your chest and arms, which can spread to your jaw, neck, back, and stomach
- heartburn or indigestion
- shortness of breath
- nausea, vomiting, and stomach pain
- extreme tiredness
- dizziness and lightheadedness
- sudden cold sweats
These symptoms can develop suddenly or come on slowly, over several hours or days. If your jaw pain is accompanied by some of these symptoms, seek emergency treatment or have someone drive you to the hospital.
Here’s a look at the most likely causes of jaw pain.
1. TMJ disorders
Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorders affect the joint that connects your skull and jaw. A disc separates the bones in this joint and helps it move properly. If the disc becomes misaligned or the joint is damaged, you could experience pain and other symptoms on one or both sides of your jaw.
Other symptoms of TMJ disorders include:
- tenderness around your jaw
- pain, clicking, or popping when chewing or opening your mouth
- difficulty opening and closing your mouth if the joint locks
Multiple factors can contribute to TMJ disorders, so it’s not always easy to find a specific cause.
Issues known to play a part in TMJ disorders include:
- teeth clenching or grinding
- tissue damage
- tooth damage or misalignment
- jaw infection or injury
- damage to the cartilage in the joint
If you have symptoms of a TMJ disorder, talk to your healthcare provider or dentist to figure out the underlying cause.
Inflammation in your nasal cavities can cause sinusitis. This tends to happen if you’ve had a cold, but allergies and other medical conditions can also contribute to sinusitis.
If the sinus cavities behind your cheeks, known as the maxillary sinuses, are inflamed, you might feel pain in one or both sides of your jaw.
Other symptoms of sinusitis include:
- nasal congestion that makes it hard to breathe through your nose
- yellow or green mucus that drains from your nose or into your throat
- facial pain, pressure, and swelling
- pressure and pain in your ears and head
- difficulty smelling or tasting
Sinusitis often clears up on its own, but it may be worth checking in with your healthcare provider if lasts more than a week.
3. Dental problems
Pain on one side of your jaw can often be traced to dental or oral health concerns.
Common dental problems that cause jaw pain include:
- an abscessed tooth
- growth of wisdom teeth
- gum disease or tooth decay
- missing or misaligned teeth
- tooth grinding or clenching
If dental issues are to blame, you’ll likely have additional symptoms, such as:
- tooth pain that lingers or comes and goes
- sensitive teeth
- painful, bleeding gums
- sores in your mouth
- bad breath or persistent dry mouth
- pain when chewing or swallowing
Facial swelling and fever along with severe tooth pain may indicate an abscess. Call your dentist or healthcare provider right away for these symptoms, especially if breathing and swallowing become difficult.
These issues aren’t very common, but they may lead to pain on one side of your jaw. If there isn’t a clear reason for your pain, your healthcare provider may want to rule out these causes.
4. Trigeminal neuralgia
This chronic condition generally results from abnormal pressure on the trigeminal nerve. This pressure can prevent the nerve from functioning properly, leading to severe pain. An injury or brain abnormality can also cause the condition.
Trigeminal neuralgia is most common in women and people above the age of 50. The primary symptom is severe pain that usually occurs on one side of your face.
This pain may:
- occur when you touch your face or move facial muscles, even minimally
- produce shooting, jabbing, or shock-like sensations
- feel like a constant ache or burn
- cause twitching in your face
- occur in episodes that last for seconds or minutes
- occur in your lower jaw, cheek, or mouth
- become more severe over time
Pain is often brief but excruciating. It may not respond to over-the-counter medications, but your healthcare provider can recommend other treatments, including prescription medication.
Osteomyelitis is an uncommon but serious type of bone infection that develops when bacteria enter bone.
Your jawbone could become infected after a dental surgery, if you have a serious dental health issue, or if your mouth is injured in some way. Conditions that affect your immune health can also increase your risk.
This infection can spread and cause bone death. Prompt treatment with antibiotics can help prevent serious complications, so it’s important to get medical care if you have:
- worsening pain in your jaw
- a fever
- swelling or tenderness in your teeth or jaw
- redness or warmth at the painful area
- tiredness or fatigue
- bad breath
- trouble opening and closing your mouth due to pain and swelling
- numbness in your jaw, lips, or mouth
6. Tumors and cysts
These two types of growths differ. Tumors are masses of tissue and cysts generally contain fluid. Either can cause pain in your jaw, though both are somewhat rare.
Often, they aren’t cancerous, but they can still have an impact on oral health. They may grow quickly, causing your teeth to move out of place and destroying bone and tissue in your jaw and mouth.
Some of the more common tumors and cysts include that can affect your mouth include:
- dentigerous cysts
Not all cysts or tumors cause symptoms, but you could experience the following, along with persistent pain in your jaw:
- red or white patches in your mouth
- open or bleeding sores
- a lump or growth you can feel
- lingering soreness or hoarse feeling in your throat
- trouble swallowing or moving your jaw
- tissue growth around teeth
- jaw or facial swelling
Treatment depends on the type of growth and its cause, but early detection and medical care can improve the chances of successful treatment.
If you have mild or temporary pain in your jaw, you may not need medical treatment. If the cause isn’t serious, pain usually improves once the issue clears up.
In the meantime, these approaches can help you manage it:
- Use heat. Heat helps relax your muscles and can help relieve aches and stiffness.
- Use ice or cold compresses. These can help numb pain and may be particularly helpful if you’re also experiencing swelling.
- Try nonprescription pain relief. Acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil), and other over-the-counter pain medications can help relieve pain temporarily. Be sure to follow the dosage instructions on the package. If the recommended dose isn’t effective or you need to take pain relievers for more than a few days, it’s best to see your healthcare provider.
- Rest your jaw when possible. Choosing foods that don’t require a lot of chewing can help you avoid overworking your jaw muscles.
- Try massage. A healthcare provider, physical therapist, or massage therapist can use massage therapy to help release pain and tension in your jaw. You can also learn how to use some techniques on your own. They may be especially helpful for TMJ disorders.
- Try to relax. If your jaw pain comes from grinding or clenching your teeth, relaxation techniques can help you avoid using this as a stress response. Relaxing your muscles can also help relieve pain.
- Change your sleeping position. If you always sleep on the same side or sleep with your hand under your jaw, this could put pressure on your muscles. Switching the side you sleep on could help your pain. Even if your pain has a different cause, sleeping on the other side could help relieve pain at night.
Although jaw pain isn’t always serious, pain accompanied by certain symptoms could point to a more serious condition that requires treatment.
You may want to consider seeing your healthcare provider or dentist if the pain sticks around for more than a few days or seems to clear up and come back.
Here are some other signs it may be time to get a medical professional’s opinion:
- You have trouble eating, drinking, swallowing, or breathing.
- Pain makes it difficult to move your mouth as you usually would.
- You have swelling or a fever that doesn’t go away.
- You have severe pain that suddenly goes away after a burst of salty liquid that tastes and smells unpleasant.
A high fever, extreme pain, or swelling that affects your ability to breathe and swallow are all serious symptoms that require prompt treatment.
If you have jaw pain with these symptoms, it’s best to head to urgent care instead of waiting for an appointment with your healthcare provider.