Jaw popping can be a painful sensation that’s caused by dysfunction of the temporomandibular joints (TMJ). These joints connect the jawbone to the skull, with one joint on each side. The hinge action of the temporomandibular joint is responsible for your ability to chew, talk, and yawn. When the joint doesn’t work properly, popping can occur.
The term TMJ is used both to refer to the joint and to the disorder. The disorder is also referred to as TMD and TMJD.
You might experience jaw popping and TMJ if you:
- chew gum too often
- bite your fingernails
- grind your teeth
- clench your jaw
- thrust your jaw out
- bite your lip or cheek
Frequently performing these behaviors can cause wear and tear on the joints, which can lead to erosion.
Jaw popping is generally not a cause for concern if there isn’t any jaw pain with it. However, certain underlying causes for the popping can create a TMJ condition that needs medical attention. These causes can include:
Arthritis can cause damage to the cartilage of the temporomandibular joint. Both rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and osteoarthritis (OA) can affect the jaw. Loss of cartilage makes the jaw movements lack proper absorption in the joint socket.
Other OA symptoms are joint pain and stiffness in other areas of the body. This also includes a lowered range of motion.
Broken or dislocated jaw
If you have sustained an injury, you might have a broken or dislocated jaw. Dislocation occurs when the jaw joint becomes unhinged.
Common causes include:
- a physical assault to the face
- vehicle accidents
- falling at home
- industrial accidents
- sports injuries
If your jaw is broken or dislocated, you may also experience:
Jaw injuries need to be treated swiftly for proper healing. Learn more about broken or dislocated jaw.
Malocclusion of the teeth
Malocclusion of the teeth results in misalignment. This can cause the jaw to pop. Malocclusion is also known as a crossbite, overbite, underbite, open bite, or crowded teeth.
Other symptoms of this condition include:
- changed facial appearance
- biting the inner cheeks or tongue frequently
- discomfort when chewing or biting
- breathing through the mouth
- speech problems
Misalignment is usually treated with braces and other orthodontic care. Learn more about malocclusion of the teeth.
Myofascial pain syndrome
Myofascial pain syndrome (MPS) causes chronic pain in the musculoskeletal system. The pain is usually localized to one area. MPS in the jaw can cause the jaw to pop.
People with MPS have trigger points, or sensitive spots. These trigger points cause pain when pressure is applied. Someone who has MPS may have:
- pain that gets worse with straining or stretching of the muscle
- pain that doesn’t get better after a week
- painful knots in muscles
- a smaller range of motion in the affected area
- mood and sleep disturbances
Jaw popping can be caused by both obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) and central sleep apnea (CSA). OSA causes a person to stop breathing involuntarily throughout their sleep cycle due to narrowness in the throat. The limited airflow restricts how much air goes into the lungs. This causes the individual to wake up so they can catch their breath.
Other symptoms of OSA include:
- daytime sleepiness
- leg swelling
People who have CSA stop breathing periodically during sleep because the brain doesn’t accurately signal the muscles. People with CSA may experience:
- difficulty swallowing
- changes in speech patterns and voice
- generalized weakness
Using a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine is the most common treatment for sleep apnea.
Infection of the salivary gland can lead to TMJ and jaw popping, among other symptoms. The infection can reside in:
- the parotid glands inside each cheek
- the submandibular glands just below the jawbone
- the sublingual glands located under your tongue
You may be unable to fully open your mouth, which can cause the popping. You may also have:
- pus in the mouth
- dry mouth
- face pain
- foul taste in the mouth
- swelling of the face and neck
Salivary gland infections should be treated right away. Learn more about salivary gland infections.
A tumor, which can lead to oral cancer, can impact the jaw. Tumors can develop in the:
- floor of the mouth
- hard and soft palate
When the tumor interferes with the movement of the jaw, you may experience jaw popping.
Symptoms of oral cancer include:
- a sore on the lip or mouth
- loose teeth
- trouble wearing dentures
- an earache that won’t subside
- a mass or growth in the mouth
- a lump in the neck
- dramatic weight loss
Consult your doctor for treatment. Learn more about oral cancer.
Your doctor may prescribe at-home remedies to help alleviate your TMJ. Home remedies may include:
- applying an ice pack or moist heat to the jaw
- taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) and aspirin, antidepressants, or muscle relaxants
- eating soft foods
- wearing a night guard or splint
- performing TMJ-specific exercises
Your doctor may also suggest that you undergo medical treatment, such as:
- corrective dental treatments
- trigger point injections
- radio wave therapy
- transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS)
Surgery is sometimes an option, but only if other treatments have been unsuccessful. Relevant surgeries include:
- arthrocentesis (remove fluid from the joint)
- open-joint surgery (replace or repair the joint)
- arthroscopy (small surgical instruments are used to repair the joint)
Women are most likely to experience TMJ, though it’s unclear why. Studies list TMJ as occurring most frequently both in younger persons and in women between the ages of 30 and 50. However, anyone of any age and either sex can experience jaw popping and TMJ.
The condition is most often temporary. TMJ can be relieved with lifestyle changes and home treatments.