A tight jaw can cause pain or discomfort in many parts of your body, including your head, ears, teeth, face, and neck. 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, jaw, nose, mouth, or ears.

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.

There are seven possible causes of a tight jaw.

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.

TMD pain is often temporary and may resolve with at-home care.

2. Stress

Feelings of stress and anxiety can sometimes cause you to inadvertently 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 while you eat or talk.

Stress can also cause other symptoms, such as tension headaches.

3. Teeth grinding (bruxism)

Bruxism (teeth grinding) or clenching may be caused by stress, genetics or dental problems, such as 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 earache.

4. Excessive chewing

Chewing gum or any other substance to excess may result in tightness in the lower jaw (mandible).

5. Rheumatoid arthritis (RA)

Rheumatoid (RA) is an autoimmune inflammatory disorder. It affects muscles and joints throughout the body. Up to 80 percent of people with RA have TMD, which is a cause of tightness in the jaw.

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.

7. Tetanus

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.

The tetanus vaccine (Tdap) prevents against this infection and has reduced the incidence of tetanus significantly in the United States.

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 warm up. 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 staring position.

Start by repeating this stretch three 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 where 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 mouth guard, especially if your jaw tightness is caused by clenching or grinding your teeth in your sleep. There are several types of mouth guards available.

You may need a specific type based on the cause of your condition. You doctor or dentist should be able to recommend an appropriate mouth guard.

Mouth guard for teeth grinding

If you’re grinding your teeth in your sleep, your dentist may recommend a mouth guard 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.

Mouth guards for bruxism can be made of several materials, ranging from hard acrylic to soft plastics. There are many over-the-counter brands of mouth guards available, although it might be preferable to have one custom made to your mouth.

Custom-made mouth guards are a more expensive option, but they allow for varying levels of thickness based upon 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 to your dentist about which type is best for you.

Mouth guard for joint disorders

If you have a joint disorder, such as TMD, your dentist may recommend a mouth guard 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. These include:

  • hot or cold compress applied to the jaw muscles
  • nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or other over-the-counter pain relievers
  • prescription medications, including muscle relaxers or antidepressants
  • Botox injections
  • head and neck stretches
  • acupuncture
  • shortwave diathermy laser treatment

Reducing stress and anxiety may help prevent jaw pain. Stress-busters to try include:

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 steak, taffy, raw carrots, and nuts.

If at-home prevention techniques don’t work, talk to your 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. Mouth guards or splints may also help.