The jaw is a complex anatomical structure—but essentially, you can think of its many parts as forming a kind of hinge for your mouth. The lower jawbone (mandible) is attached to your skull (temporal bone) by a unique pair of joints called the temporomandibular joints (TMJs). These joints have a ball-and-socket arrangement with a shock-absorbing disk in between, allowing both a hinging and a sliding motion. As with any joint, movements are controlled by muscles and nerves.
But there’s more: sitting within your jawbones are your teeth and the gums that protect them. We use our jaws for eating, talking, and many other daily functions—so it’s no surprise that stress, disease or injury can create problems in this area. These problems often begin with jaw pain.
Pain is your body’s way of alerting you that something is wrong—a signal that should not be ignored if it is persistent or acute. If you are experiencing jaw pain, it’s a good idea to get it checked out by your dentist. He or she will examine you, sometimes with the aid of x-rays, to determine the cause of your pain and the best way to relieve it. Jaw pain can be traced to a number of causes. The most common ones include:
The phrase Temporomandibular Disorders (TMD) refers to a group of conditions that cause chronic pain and/or dysfunction in the area of the jaw joint, also known as the TMJ (temporomandibular joint). With TMD, the source of the pain can be the joint itself or the muscles that surround it.
People with TMD often experience pain while chewing, difficulty opening or closing their jaws, and/or a clicking sound during jaw movement. Yet the exact cause of TMD pain can be difficult to pinpoint; it may result from nighttime clenching or teeth-grinding habits, or from various other conditions that affect joints in general. These may include arthritis, disk problems, strained tendons and ligaments, and inflammation.
Experts recommend taking a conservative approach regarding TMD, at least initially. This includes a temporary switch to a softer diet; hot compresses or ice packs; and/or over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication, such as ibuprofen. Fortunately, most cases of TMD will in time resolve themselves without more complex treatments. If TMD pain does not respond to conservative measures, other treatments, such as orthodontics, dental restorations or injections, may be explored—but surgery is not generally recommended.
Jaw pain doesn’t always originate in the joint: In some cases, it may be alerting you to a dental problem that requires immediate attention. One of these is a gum abscess, which is a pus-filled sac that develops beneath the gum line. An abscess can result from untreated gum disease, or may be caused by a trapped food particle that has developed an infection around it. Draining the abscess will usually stop the pain immediately, although a course of antibiotics may also be prescribed to completely clear up the infection.
Deep tooth decay can also be felt as jaw pain. This, too, is the result of a bacterial infection that has eroded the hard enamel covering of the tooth and reached the sensitive inner pulp. This condition is usually treated with a root canal procedure. Any type of infection serious enough to cause pain can result in tooth looseness or even loss if not cared for promptly.
A traumatic injury to the face can also cause various painful jaw problems, including a bone fracture, dislocation of the joint, swelling, and/or muscle spasm. This is sometimes accompanied by loosened or displaced teeth or gum injury. If you suffer a fall, sports injury or other type of accident involving the face or head, a trip to the ER is usually advised—not only to treat any oral/facial pain that has resulted, but also to rule out a brain injury.
Minor jaw injuries and soreness can sometimes be relieved with cold packs applied to the face, anti-inflammatory medication, and avoidance of foods that are difficult to bite or chew. But if you can’t get relief in any of these ways, be sure to see your general dentist promptly. He or she can diagnose your condition and refer you to a specialist if necessary.