7 causes of jaw discomfort, including tips on whether to see a doctor
Diagnosing jaw pain is tricky because it can be caused by a number of factors, including dental problems, nerve damage, infections, injuries or tumors, said dr. Yasmine Jalalotolaryngologist at Memorial Hermann Health System.
Here are seven reasons why you might have jaw pain and how to treat them.
One of the most common causes of jaw pain is temporomandibular joint and muscle disordersor TDG.
The temporomandibular joints (TMJ) are the points on either side of your face where your upper jaw and lower jaw meet.
These joints include an extensive network of bones, cartilage and nerves. This means there are many things that can go wrong with TMJ, including arthritis, dislocation or nerve pain, says Dr Monica KalraFamily doctor.
TMD is characterized by pain on one side of the face, explains Dr. Riza T Conroy, Family doctor. The pain comes and goes often. You may also have a click in the jaw, a lock, or a reduced range of motion.
What to do: See your primary care provider, dentist, or oral surgeon. They will work with you to determine what is causing your TMD and find a treatment.
Common treatment options include physiotherapy, wearing a mouth guard, and lifestyle changes, including dietary changes and stress management. If these don’t work or your TMD is severe, you may need surgery.
2. Dental issues
From the jaw holds teeth and surrounding nerves, you may experience pain from dental problems in your jawbone.
If dental issues are causing jaw pain, you may notice these symptoms, according to Conroy:
- Pain on one side or in a specific area
- Pain that gets worse when you eat or drink something hot or cold
- Bad breath or unpleasant taste in the mouth
- swelling in your jaw
What to do: Consult your dentist. They will likely do an exam to check for gum disease or infection and use x-rays to diagnose cavities. Once they address the root of the problem, your jaw pain should go away.
3. Sinus infection
The sinuses are air pockets located on top of the jaw. If they fill up with fluid due to a cold, seasonal allergies, smoking, or structural problems, you may develop a Sinus infection.
A sinus infection can put pressure on your sinus cavities, leading to jaw pain. You’ll likely notice other symptoms as well, including:
- Facial pressure or swelling
- Runny or stuffy nose
- bad breath
What to do: Consult your primary care provider. In many cases, doctors recommend waiting to see if the symptoms of a sinus infection go away on their own, which usually takes about 10 days.
But if it lasts longer than 10 days or is severe, your doctor may recommend that you take antibiotics.
4. Ear infection
When you have a ear infection, the pain can radiate across your face and into your jaw, Conroy says. Ear infections are more common in children, but they can also occur in adults.
If an ear infection is causing jaw pain, you may notice other symptoms, including:
- Pain on one side of the head or face
- Hearing problem
- Balance issues
- Fluid leaking from the ear
- Sleeping troubles
What to do: In most cases, ear infections disappear without treatment in the three days. Use an over-the-counter pain reliever and warm compresses to manage the pain until it starts to go away.
5. Parotid Gland Problems
The parotid gland produces saliva and is located at the back of the lower jaw and cheek region.
If the ducts of the gland become clogged, this can lead to an inflammation known as parotitis. This causes pain and swelling at the back of the jaw. Although the pain may start on one side, it usually progresses to both sides, Conroy says.
In addition to pain, you may notice symptoms including:
- Changes to how much you can open your mouth
- Pain that gets worse when eating
- Swelling, especially in front of the ears
- Redness on the face or neck
- Dry mouth
- Bad taste in the mouth
What to do: Consult your attending physician. They will do an exam and then order further tests, which may include a CT scan, MRI, ultrasound, or blood tests to identify the cause of parotitis.
Depending on the cause, treatments include massage and warm compresses, antibiotics, and surgery.
6. Nerve damage
In rare cases, jaw pain is caused by damage to the trigeminal nerve, said Jalal. This nerve runs all over the face, including the jawbone. The nerve can be affected in three main ways:
- Impacts and injuries to the face can damage your trigeminal nerve, leading to pain, numbness, and decreased movement.
- Trigeminal neuropathya nerve condition often caused by diabetes, can lead to numbness.
- trigeminal neuralgia, a specific type of neuropathy, can cause sudden, intense, lightning-like pain on one side of the face. Episodes of pain are usually short, but likely to recur.
The most common symptom of nerve damage is a tingling sensation that feels like pins and needles. You may also feel weakness in your jaw.
What to do: Talk to your doctor. Sometimes damage from injury or impact goes away over time. If the nerve has been severed, you may need surgery. Treatments for trigeminal neuralgia include anticonvulsants, muscle relaxants, and botox.
7. Tumor or cysts of the jaw
odontogenic tumors, which are tumors around the jaw and mouth, develop from the tissue involved in the development of teeth.
They can cause symptoms such as:
- Swelling around the jaw or mouth that is hard to the touch and may expand over time
- loose teeth
Jaw tumors are usually not cancerous, but they can grow quickly, displacing normal tissue and bone in the jaw and causing pain.
What to do: Consult your doctor. They will likely recommend imaging, including X-rays, a CT scan, or an MRI. They will also likely do a biopsy to make sure the tumor is not cancerous. Often jaw tumors need to be surgically removed.
Jaw pain can have a big impact on your life. If you experience severe, persistent, or recurring jaw pain, it is advisable to speak with your primary care provider or dentist.
Jaw pain is usually treatable, but if you delay seeking help, you could put yourself at risk for complications.
“Delayed or incorrect diagnosis can lead to poor healing which can lead to chronic pain and difficulty eating,” says Jalal. “Timely diagnosis and treatment can yield good results.”