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Jaw Clicking Symptoms, Causes & Common Questions

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Last updated March 17, 2021

Jaw clicking quiz

Take a quiz to find out what's causing your jaw clicking.

Jaw clicking is almost always a sign of a misalignment of your teeth, your jawbones, or your jaw muscles. The temporomandibular joints TMJ is the jaw joint that is affected by teeth grinding, uneven stretching of facial muscles or misalignment of the temporal bones with the jaw bone. Read below on three categories of jaw clicking causes - muscular, skeletal, and dental - and at-home treatments you can take.

6 most common cause(s)

Rheumatoid Arthritis
TMJ Dysfunction Disorder
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Tooth abscess
Myofascial Pain Syndrome
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Giant cell arteritis
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Dislocation of the jaw

Jaw clicking quiz

Take a quiz to find out what's causing your jaw clicking.

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Jaw clicking symptoms

While chewing or speaking, you may notice a clicking or popping sound that seems to come from inside your head, at a point just in front or above your ear. This area is your temporomandibular joint, or TMJ, a hinge joint that connects your upper and lower jaws. The clicking may seem harmless, though annoying, and is often painless. A clicking jaw is almost always a sign of a misalignment of your teeth, your jawbones, or your jaw muscles. You should see a physician before it worsens, as jaw clicking is a type of temporomandibular disorder, or TMD.

Common characteristics of jaw clicking

If you're experiencing jaw clicking, it will likely present with:

Duration of symptoms

TMD will sometimes resolve on its own, especially if you make an effort to manage your stress and control habits like grinding your teeth. In many cases, however, the symptoms continue or even get worse as time passes.

Is jaw clicking serious?

If there is no pain associated with the clicking, you may not need to see a physician. If there is pain or discomfort, or the simple annoyance of the clicking is reason enough, your medical provider can refer you to a specialist, if necessary.

Causes of a clicking jaw

Many conditions can have jaw clicking as a symptom. The most common are those causing severe strain and tension in the muscles of the head and neck, although misalignment of the jawbones may have the same symptom. The following details may help you better understand your symptoms and if and when you need to see a physician.

Muscular causes

Anything that strains and overworks the muscles of the jaw until they don't work together smoothly can result in jaw clicking. The result is an uneven stretching and retracting of the muscles. You hear this unevenness as a click since it occurs in the jaw's hinge joint right at your ears.

Dental causes

Dental causes may result in jaw clicking.

  • Teeth grinding: Constantly or subconsciously grinding or clenching your teeth can overwork your jaw muscles.
  • Malocclusion of the teeth: If the teeth do not meet correctly, and you have a bite that is off-center, this can cause an uneven strain on some of the jaw muscles.
  • Dentures: If dentures don't fit well they can lead to malocclusion.

Skeletal causes

Jaw clicking may stem from skeletal causes, such as the following.

  • Misalignment of the jaw bones: This misalignment may cause a click when you try to open or close your mouth.
  • Congenital misalignment: Congenital misalignment means you have an inherited deformity of your jawbones preventing them from lining up properly.
  • Injury: If your jaw is broken or dislocated from an injury, it may be misaligned and click even after it seems to have healed.
  • Disease: Some degenerative bone and connective tissue disorders can damage the alignment of your jaw's hinge joint.

Psychological causes

Stress can cause tension in the cheeks and jaws, also causing the muscles to overwork.

This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.

Tooth abscess (infection)

A tooth abscess is a collection of infected material (pus) in the center of a tooth. It is due to a bacterial infection.

You should seek dental care within 24 hours. The diagnosis is made based on your history, an exam, and an x-ray of the mouth. If the abscess is affecting your breathing, it's considered a medical emergency and you should seek emergency care. Treatment involves incision and drainage of the abscess in addition to antibiotics.

Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) dysfunction disorder

Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) dysfunction disorder refers to long-term pain and dysfunction in the TMJ, the joint that connects the upper and lower jawbones.

The TMJ is a complex joint with complicated movements and is subject to strain and injury. Symptoms may come and go for no apparent reason. Misalignment of the teeth and jaw, and tooth grinding, are no longer believed to be a cause. Women seem to be more susceptible than men.

TMJ disorder has three types:

  • Pain or discomfort in the muscles controlling the TMJ.
  • Dislocation or injury to the jawbone.
  • Arthritis of the TMJ.

Diagnosis is made through patient history, physical examination, and imaging. The goal is to rule out other causes such as sinus infection or facial nerve damage.

Due to the difficulty of diagnosing TMJ disorder, treatment begins with conservative methods that do not permanently change the jaw or teeth. Ice packs, soft foods, gentle stretching of the jaw muscles, and reducing stress are all encouraged. Short-term pain medications may be used. Splints, Botox, implants, and surgery are not recommended.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: dizziness, pain, restricted movement, and clicking sounds from jaw, history of headaches, jaw pain, pain in the back of the neck

Symptoms that always occur with temporomandibular joint (tmj) dysfunction disorder: pain, restricted movement, and clicking sounds from jaw

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Rheumatoid arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic inflammatory disorder that affects the lining of the joints, causing them to become thickened and painful. It can also affect other parts of the body such as the heart, lungs, eyes, and circulatory system.

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease, which means the body's immune system turns against itself for unknown reasons.

Most at risk are women from ages 30-60. Other risk factors are family history, smoking, and obesity.

Early symptom include warm, swollen, stiff, painful joints, especially the fingers and toes; fatigue; and fever. Usually, the same joints on both sides of the body are affected.

If untreated, irreversible joint damage and deformity can occur, with other complications. Early diagnosis can allow preventive treatment to begin as soon as possible.

Diagnosis is made through physical examination; blood tests; and x-ray, CT scan, or MRI.

There is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis, but the disease can be managed to improve quality of life. Treatment includes nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs; steroids; anti-rheumatic drugs; physical therapy; and sometimes surgery to repair the joints.

Myofascial pain syndrome

Myofascial pain syndrome is also called chronic myofascial pain (CMP.) Pressure on certain points of the muscles causes referred pain, meaning the pain is felt elsewhere in the body.

The cause is believed to be muscle injury through overuse, either from sports or from a job requiring repetitive motion. Tension, stress, and poor posture can also cause habitual tightening of the muscles, a form of overuse.

This overuse causes scar tissue, or adhesions, to form in the muscles. These points are known as trigger points, since they trigger pain at any stimulus.

Symptoms include deep, aching muscular pain that does not go away with rest or massage, but may actually worsen. There is often difficulty sleeping due to pain.

Myofascial pain syndrome should be seen by a medical provider, since it can develop into a similar but more severe condition called fibromyalgia.

Diagnosis is made through physical examination and applying mild pressure to locate the trigger points.

Treatment involves physical therapy, pain medications, and trigger point injections. In some cases, acupuncture and antidepressants are helpful.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: dizziness, spontaneous shoulder pain, pain in the back of the neck, tender muscle knot, general numbness

Symptoms that always occur with myofascial pain syndrome: tender muscle knot

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Giant cell arteritis

Giant cell arteritis is a disorder that affects the blood vessels in the head and neck and can cause headaches, vision problems, jaw pain, and arm pain.

Giant cell arteritis is usually evaluated by a primary care doctor who might perform a physical exam and order a blood test to look for inflammation. They might prescribe steroids to help lower the inflammation.

Dislocation of the jaw

A jaw dislocation is when the bones of the mandible (lower jaw) come unhinged from the bones of the side of the head.

You should go to the ER, where the jaw can be put back into place and the possibility of fractures of the bones can be ruled out.

Rarity: Rare

Top Symptoms: jaw pain from an injury, locking or dislocating jaw

Symptoms that always occur with dislocation of the jaw: jaw pain from an injury

Urgency: Hospital emergency room

Jaw clicking treatments and relief

When it is an emergency

Seek immediate treatment in the emergency room or call 911 if your jaw is clicking after you've suffered a blow to the head or face through a fall, an automobile accident, or some other injury.

When to see a doctor

Depending on what you believe the cause of your jaw clicking is, you may need to see a few different medical professionals.

  • See a dentist: If you believe you have a malocclusion (a bite that is off-center).
  • See your regular medical provider: If you believe you have a misalignment of the jaw. Your misalignment could have been present from birth or may be due to a prior injury. Your provider can also arrange for physical therapy to help correct the TMD.
  • See a psychologist or other counselor: These professionals can help with stress management and tension.

At-home treatments

Remedies that you can try at home include the following.

  • Make lifestyle changes to improve diet, exercise, and sleep habits: All of these measures can help reduce stress.
  • Make a conscious effort to stop grinding your teeth: An inexpensive mouth guard, available over-the-counter in drug stores, is helpful to some people.
  • Use hot or cold packs on the painful areas of the TMJ
  • Pain medication: Take over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) or naproxen (Aleve). Acetaminophen (Tylenol) may also help.

FAQs about jaw clicking

Can stress cause jaw clicking?

No, jaw clicking is most often caused by swelling of the temporomandibular joint (TMJ). It can frequently resolve with over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications such as NSAIDs like ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin). It is not caused directly by stress. Jaw clicking can, however, be due to chronic teeth grinding which can cause inflammation of the temporomandibular joint.

What does it mean when your jaw clicks all the time?

It may mean that you have a disorder of your temporomandibular joint (TMJ). Common disorders include temporomandibular joint dysfunction or temporomandibular joint dislocation. Dysfunction is most commonly inflammation of the joint due to an infection or teeth grinding. Infections may occur following an ear infection and teeth grinding. Nighttime grinding may be due to stress.

Why is my jaw clicking when I eat?

Your jaw may be clicking when you eat because as you eat, you use your temporomandibular joint (TMJ). The swelling increases the pressure in the joint, which escapes as the joint stretches, causing a clicking noise. This clicking may be because of how your jaw sits and has developed, or it may be a sign of inflammation.

Why does my jaw clicking cause a headache?

Jaw clicking is associated with temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorders, which may also cause a headache. Usually, they are one-sided but can affect both sides of the head. If you grind your teeth at night, headaches may occur in the morning.

Why does your jaw pop when you yawn?

Your jaw pops when you yawn because you are stretching your temporomandibular joint (TMJ). As the joint stretches, it allows carbon dioxide or nitrogen that is dissolved in the joint fluid or synovial fluid to expand, causing a clicking sound as the gas escapes the joint capsule. Usually, this is a painless clicking or popping sensation.

Questions your doctor may ask about jaw clicking

  • Has your dentist or significant other ever told you that you grind your teeth in your sleep?
  • Do you hear a ringing or whistling sound no one else hears?
  • Are you experiencing a headache?
  • About your ear, do you feel a warm or fluid sensation in your ear?

Self-diagnose with our free Buoy Assistant if you answer yes on any of these questions.

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The stories shared below are not written by Buoy employees. Buoy does not endorse any of the information in these stories. Whenever you have questions or concerns about a medical condition, you should always contact your doctor or a healthcare provider.
Dr. Rothschild has been a faculty member at Brigham and Women’s Hospital where he is an Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. He currently practices as a hospitalist at Newton Wellesley Hospital. In 1978, Dr. Rothschild received his MD at the Medical College of Wisconsin and trained in internal medicine followed by a fellowship in critical care medicine. He also received an MP...
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