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, but 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.

Here are seven possible causes of a tight jaw.

1. Temporomandibular joint disorders (TMJ or TMJD)

TMJ causes pain in the jaw joint and surrounding muscles. It can cause pain or locking in one or both hinge joints. The hinge joints are located between the lower jaw and the temporal bone. These are the temporomandibular joints.

TMJ 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.

TMJ 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)

Teeth grinding or clenching may not always be caused by stress. Other issues, such as genetics or dental problems, such as misaligned teeth, may play a role. 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)

RA is an autoimmune inflammatory disorder. It affects muscles and joints throughout the body. Up to 80 percent of people with RA have TMJ, 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

Though rare, it’s possible for osteoarthritis 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

If left untreated, this potentially fatal infection can cause lockjaw. Lockjaw is a bacterial disease. Symptoms include stiffness in the abdomen, trouble swallowing, and painful muscle contractions in the jaw and neck. The tetanus vaccine 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.

Repeat this stretch three times at first, and work your way up to 12 repetitions.

2. Jaw joint stretch

Press the tip of your tongue onto the roof of your mouth, directly behind, but not touching, your top front teeth. Then, with your tongue still applying gentle pressure, slowly open your mouth as wide as you can, then slowly close it shut. This exercise should not be done if it causes you any pain. Stop at the point where you feel discomfort. Repeat up to 10 times.

This exercise helps stretch the muscles of the jaw and neck.

3. Smile stretch

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.

This stretch helps eliminate stress in the facial muscles, upper and lower jaw, and neck.

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 geared toward reducing 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 tooth grinding. They’re also more effective at reducing jaw strain and helping your jaw align naturally than store-bought options are. Talk to your dentist about which type is best for you.

Mouth guard for joint disorders

If you have a joint disorder, such as TMJ, your dentist may recommend a mouth guard called a splint. Splints are made of hard or soft acrylic, and 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. Splints are usually custom made.

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, where the temporomandibular joints are located. Use a circular motion. Try this several times a day, including right before bed.

There are a wide range of treatments that may provide relief. These include:

  • a 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, it may help to talk to your doctor or dentist to determine which next steps will provide the most relief for you.

A tight, painful jaw can be caused by a wide range of conditions, including bruxism, TMJ, and stress. A number of at-home solutions may be able to provide relief or prevention. These include stress reduction and behavior modifications, such as eating soft food and avoiding chewing gum. Mouth guards or splints may also help.

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