A tight jaw can happen for many reasons, such as stress, temporomandibular joint disorders, grinding the teeth at night, and tetanus, also known as lockjaw.
Tetanus is just one cause of stiffness in the jaw, but it can lead to severe complications.
The treatment will depend on the cause.
A tight jaw can cause pain or discomfort in many parts of your body. The intensity of the pain can vary and may be described as achy, throbbing, tender, or severe. These feelings may become worse while chewing or yawning.
The exact location of the pain can also vary. If you have a tight jaw, you may feel discomfort on:
- one or both sides of your face
In addition to pain, other symptoms of a tight jaw may include:
- limited range of motion when you try to open your mouth
- locking of the jaw joint
- clicking sounds
Read on to learn about possible causes of a tight jaw and what you can do to find relief and prevent future tightness.
1. Temporomandibular joint disorders (TMD or TMJD)
TMD causes pain in the jaw joint and surrounding muscles. It can cause pain or locking in one or both hinge joints (temporomandibular joints). These joints are located between the lower jaw and the temporal bone.
TMD can also cause an aching or throbbing pain and feelings of tenderness in or near the ear, jaw, and face. Chewing food may increase feelings of pain. Chewing may also produce a clicking sound or grinding sensation.
Feelings of stress and anxiety can sometimes cause you to unintentionally clench your jaw or grind your teeth while you’re asleep. You may also hold your jaw in a clenched position while you’re awake without being aware of it.
These actions can cause feelings of tightness in the jaw and pain during sleeping and waking hours. The pain may be worse when you eat or talk.
Stress can also cause other similar symptoms, such as tension headaches.
3. Teeth grinding (bruxism)
Bruxism (teeth grinding) or clenching may be caused by stress, genetics, or dental problems like misaligned teeth. Bruxism may occur during sleep. It can also occur when you’re awake, although you may not be consciously aware of it.
Bruxism can cause tightness or feelings of soreness in the face, neck, and upper or lower jaw. It can also cause headaches or earaches.
4. Excessive chewing
Chewing gum or any other substance in excess may result in tightness in the lower jaw (mandible).
5. Rheumatoid arthritis (RA)
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune inflammatory disorder. It affects muscles and joints throughout the body.
According to 2015 research, up to
RA may damage the jaw joint and surrounding tissues. It can also cause bone loss in the jaw.
6. Osteoarthritis (OA)
Though rare, it’s possible for osteoarthritis (OA) to occur within the temporomandibular joints. It can cause deterioration and loss of function of the jaw bone, cartilage, and tissue. This can result in a tight, painful jaw. It can also cause radiating pain to the surrounding area.
Tetanus (lockjaw) is a potentially fatal bacterial infection. Symptoms include stiffness in the abdomen, trouble swallowing, and painful muscle contractions in the jaw and neck.
8. Facial trauma
Sometimes an injury to the face can affect part of the jaw that causes movement. This may result in pain or tightness.
Potential causes of jaw damage include blunt force, such as a striking injury, and even cancer treatments like surgery or radiation.
Some medications may trigger jaw pain symptoms.
These can include:
If you have an infection around your mouth, it can affect jaw movement.
Though uncommon, infections can permanently damage muscles or nerves, which can lead to repeated bouts of lockjaw.
Sometimes a locked jaw will include other specific symptoms.
Jaw popping and locking
You might feel an uncomfortable popping sensation along with a tight jaw. This symptom may be caused by:
- teeth grinding
- excessive chewing
- arthritis or other medical conditions
Locked jaw and ear pain
Ear pain is a common symptom associated with a tight jaw. It’s often caused by:
In some cases, you may be able to relieve tight jaw muscles using targeted exercises and stretches. Here are three you can try:
1. Manual jaw-opening exercise
Repeat small mouth-opening and mouth-closing movements several times as a warmup. Then, place your fingers on the top of your front four bottom teeth.
Slowly pull down until you feel slight discomfort on the tight side of your jaw. Hold for 30 seconds, and then slowly release your jaw back to the starting position.
Start by repeating this stretch 3 times, and work your way up to 12 repetitions.
2. Jaw joint stretch
This exercise helps stretch the muscles of the jaw and neck.
Press the tip of your tongue onto the roof of your mouth, directly behind your top front teeth without touching them. Next, use your tongue to apply gentle pressure. Slowly open your mouth as wide as you can, then slowly close it shut.
Stop at the point when you feel discomfort. Repeat up to 10 times. However, you shouldn’t do this exercise if it causes you any pain.
3. Smile stretch
This stretch helps eliminate stress in the facial muscles, upper and lower jaw, and neck.
Smile the widest smile you can without feeling tightness or pain. While smiling, slowly open your jaw an additional 2 inches. Inhale deeply through your mouth, then exhale while letting go of the smile. Repeat up to 10 times.
You may benefit from wearing a mouthguard, especially if your jaw tightness is caused by clenching or grinding your teeth in your sleep. There are several types of mouthguards available.
You may need a specific type based on the cause of your condition. A doctor or dentist should be able to recommend an appropriate mouthguard.
Mouthguard for teeth grinding
If you’re grinding your teeth in your sleep, a dentist may recommend a mouthguard to help reduce contact between your upper and lower teeth. This will help reduce wear and tear on the teeth. It may also help to eliminate jaw tightness and pain.
Mouthguards for bruxism can be made of several materials, ranging from hard acrylic to soft plastics. There are many over-the-counter brands of mouthguards available, although it might be preferable to have one custom made to your mouth.
Custom-made and 3D-printed mouthguards are a more expensive option, but they allow for varying levels of thickness based on the severity of your teeth grinding. They’re also more effective at reducing jaw strain and helping your jaw align naturally than store-bought options.
Talk with a dentist about which type is best for you.
Mouthguard for joint disorders
If you have a joint disorder, such as TMD, your dentist may recommend a mouthguard called a splint. Splints are made of hard or soft acrylic and are usually custom made.
They’re designed to gently hold the mandible in a forward position, jutting toward the front of your mouth. This helps reduce the strain on your jaw bone and surrounding muscles.
Your dentist may recommend you wear the splint 24 hours a day, rather than just at night. Treatment may last from months to years.
Massaging your jaw may help increase blood flow and reduce muscle tightness.
You can try this by opening your mouth and gently rubbing the muscles next to your ears in a circular motion. This is the area where the temporomandibular joints are located. Try this several times a day, including right before bed.
There are also treatments that may provide relief.
Hot or cold compresses
Applying a hot or cold compress to your jaw may help ease pain.
Pain relievers, such as ibuprofen, can help lessen jaw discomfort. Sometimes, doctors will also prescribe certain antidepressants or muscle relaxers, depending on the situation.
Acupuncture is an alternative remedy that some people find effective at treating jaw problems. It involves inserting tiny needles into strategic pressure points of the body in an attempt to relieve pain.
In certain cases, surgery may be an option for people with TMD. Different types of procedures are available to fix a problematic joint in the jaw.
Shortwave diathermy laser treatment
Shortwave diathermy laser treatment uses a high frequency electric current to generate heat in the body. It can help relieve pain and increase blood flow.
It’s a good idea to see a doctor any time you experience jaw pain or discomfort that doesn’t go away on its own. A dentist or an oral medicine specialist can recommend certain therapies to ease your symptoms.
Reducing stress and anxiety may help prevent jaw pain. Stress-relieving techniques to try include:
- deep breathing exercises
- low impact aerobic activity, such as dancing, walking, and swimming
Avoiding excessive chewing and overuse of your jaw muscles may also help prevent jaw pain. Try eating soft foods that aren’t sticky, and avoid foods that require excessive chewing, such as:
- raw carrots
If at-home prevention techniques don’t work, talk with a doctor or dentist to determine how you can find relief for jaw tightness.
A tight, painful jaw can be caused by a range of conditions, including bruxism, TMD, and stress. Some at-home solutions may provide relief or prevent tightness and pain.
These include stress reduction and behavior modifications, such as eating soft food and avoiding chewing gum. Mouthguards or splints may also help.