Jaw pain quiz
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Jaw pain, an aching pain in your jaw, ear, and/or face when chewing or attempting to open and close your mouth, can occur on the right or left side. Learn more.
8 most common causes
What is jaw pain?
Jaw pain can be an aching or sharp pain that may affect your ability to eat and speak. When severe, jaw pain can be an extremely debilitating condition.
Jaw pain can be caused from tension in your jaw or from chronic conditions like temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder.
But conditions that affect different parts of the face like the sinuses, ears, and teeth, can also cause jaw pain.
Jaw pain symptoms
Jaw pain can be a vague symptom with a number of different causes, and some of them are not really caused by the jaw. However, it is possible to search through your additional symptoms and pinpoint the cause of an aching, painful jaw.
Common characteristics of jaw pain
Jaw pain can most likely be described by the following details.
- Aching pain in your jaw, ear, and/or face: Especially when chewing or attempting to open or close your mouth
- Clicking, popping, or grinding sounds in your temporomandibular joint (TMJ): This is the hinged joint just in front of your ear.
- Locking or sticking of the TMJ
- An uneven appearance of the teeth and bite: This may either be a cause or a result of your jaw pain.
Who is most often affected?
The following people are more often affected by jaw pain.
- Women between the ages of about 30 to 50 seem to be most often affected: However, anyone can have the symptom of jaw pain.
- Anyone with the constant habit of chewing gum may find themselves with jaw pain: This is due to simple overuse of the chewing muscles.
- If you wear orthodontic braces you may experience jaw pain: This is due to the forces trying to readjust the alignment of your teeth.
- Sitting with poor posture with your head forward: Such as when looking at a computer screen all day, is sometimes associated with TMJ pain
Is it serious?
The severity of jaw pain is ultimately dependent on the cause.
- Not serious: If the pain is caused by simple tension and anxiety, it can be easily treated by your medical provider or you may be able to simply use some relaxation techniques on your own.
- Moderately serious: Jaw pain that is caused by dental problems or by inflammation of the TMJ should be treated by a dentist or other specialist, because these conditions can worsen and cause further pain and damage.
- Serious: If you are having jaw pain as a symptom of a heart attack, or because you have a damaged, infected, or broken bone in the jaw, it must be treated right away.
Causes of jaw pain
Most common cause types
The most common reasons for jaw pain include:
- Inflammation and wearing away of the cartilage of the temporomandibular joint
- Dental infections, such as an abscess, can spread down into the jawbone and the roots of the teeth, causing pain.
Less common cause types
Causes of jaw pain that are less common include the following.
- Anxiety: This leads to tension, which can lead to tooth grinding and jaw clenching. The actions can cause damage and uneven wear to the surface of the teeth, which then causes uneven pressure on the joints of the jawbones.
- Overusing the jaw muscles for chewing or even talking: This can leave these muscles sore and inflamed.
- Abnormalities of the jaw: These can be treated by dentists and other specialists.
- Myofascial pain syndrome: This is where "trigger points" small areas of very tight, contracted muscle tissue cause pain when touched or pressed.
Rare and unusual cause types
The least common causes of jaw pain include:
- Injury that may not be obvious right away: Such as a fracture. This can occur to either an upper or lower jawbone.
- A tumor forming in or somewhere near the jawbones
- Heart attack
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.
Top Symptoms: severe jaw or tooth pain, swollen jaw, jaw stiffness, tooth pain that gets worse with hot, cold, or sweet beverages, warm and red jaw swelling
Symptoms that always occur with tooth abscess (infection): severe jaw or tooth pain
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Tension headache (first onset)
Tension headache is described as feeling like there is a band around the head that gets tighter and tighter. The headaches may occur in episodes – a few times a week – or chronically, where they almost never entirely go away.
This is a common type of headache but the cause remains unclear. It may be a combination of stress and an overactive sensitivity to pain.
Symptoms include dull, aching pain and tightness in the forehead, sides, and back of the head, and sometimes pain in the neck and shoulder muscles. Unlike migraines, there is usually no nausea, vomiting, or sensitivity to light.
Tension headaches are not dangerous in themselves, but can interfere with work and with quality of life.
Diagnosis is made through patient history and sometimes physical examination. CT scan or MRI may be done to rule out a more serious cause of the headaches.
Over-the-counter and other pain relievers are sometimes prescribed. Lifestyle changes to reduce stress, improve diet, and increase exercise are often helpful, as is massage and biofeedback.
Top Symptoms: new headache, nausea or vomiting, moderate headache, loss of appetite, mild headache
Symptoms that always occur with tension headache (first onset): new headache
Symptoms that never occur with tension headache (first onset): photo and phonophobia, throbbing headache, headache resulting from a head injury
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.
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
Swimmer's ear (otitis externa)
Swimmer's ear, or otitis externa, is an infection of the canal which runs from the eardrum to the opening of the ear.
It is caused by anything that introduces bacteria, fungus, or a virus into the canal. Water that stays inside the ear after swimming is a common cause, as are cotton swabs used for cleaning or earpieces that create irritation.
Most susceptible are children, because they have narrower ear canals that do not drain well.
Early symptoms include redness, itching, and discomfort inside the ear canal, sometimes with drainage of clear fluid.
Even mild symptoms should be treated because they can quickly get worse. The infection can spread and intensify, becoming very painful with increased drainage, swelling, fever, and loss of hearing.
Diagnosis is made through patient history and physical examination of the ear canal. Lab tests may be done on a sample of the discharge from the ear.
Treatment includes having a medical provider clean the ear canal of debris and discharge, and a prescription for antibiotic and/or steroid eardrops.
Top Symptoms: fever, ear canal pain, ear fullness/pressure, jaw pain, ear pain that gets worse when moving
Urgency: Primary care doctor
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.
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
Infected wisdom tooth (pericoronitis)
Pericoronitis of the 3rd molar is an infection of the gums surrounding the 3rd molar (wisdom tooth). It almost never happens to normal teeth because wisdom teeth take a long time to break the gums (erupt). It's believed that once the wisdom tooth breaks the surface of the gums, the bacteria in the mouth get into the gums at that spot and cause an infection. This is also worsened by food particles that build up in the area.
You should go immediately to your dentist, or, if they are not available, go to the nearest urgent care center. There, the dentist/doctor will clean the area, drain any pus, and write for an antibiotic mouth rinse. Penicillin is reserved for severe cases. A follow-up with a dentist is required to see if you need to get the tooth pulled.
Top Symptoms: possible wisdom tooth pain, moderate tooth pain, tooth pain that makes chewing difficult, severe tooth pain, mild tooth pain
Symptoms that always occur with infected wisdom tooth (pericoronitis): possible wisdom tooth pain
Urgency: In-person visit
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.
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
Acute salivary duct stone (sialolithiasis)
A salivary duct stone is the most common disorder of the salivary glands (where you make spit). They can range in size from tiny particles to stones that are several centimeters in length.
You can try treating this at home and going to the doctor if things don't work. You can stay well hydrated, apply warm compresses, and massage or "milk" the duct with the stone in it. Another tip would be to suck on lemon drops or other hard tart candy (called sialogogues, which promote salivary secretions) throughout the day. Pain is treated with NSAIDs like Ibuprofen. If things do not get better or you cannot find the stone, it's best to go to your doctor.
Top Symptoms: swelling on one side of the face, swollen jaw, painful face swelling, spontaneous jaw pain, painful jaw swelling
Urgency: Phone call or in-person visit
Jaw pain treatments and relief
When jaw pain is an emergency
Seek immediate treatment in the emergency room or call 911 if:
- The jaw pain is accompanied by chest pain, sweating, and/or shortness of breath
- The jaw pain is sudden and severe: Especially following a fall or accident of any kind, and you are unable to properly move, open, or close your jaw
When to see a doctor for jaw pain
Schedule an appointment for:
- Jaw pain that seems to come from one or both corners of the jawbone, up in front of your ears: You may be referred for physical therapy, corticosteroid injections into the joint, or, more rarely, for surgery.
- Jaw pain that seems to be localized to one or more teeth: Your dentist can help with this by treating any teeth in need of filling or removal.
- Jaw pain that may be caused by ongoing tension or anxiety: This leads to tooth grinding and constant clenching and tensing of the jaw. Your medical provider can help you with this or refer you to someone who can.
At-home treatments for jaw pain
Remedies that you can try at home:
- Avoid chewing gum: As well as foods that are difficult to chew, such as taffy
- Stretch or massage the muscles of the jaw
- Use hot or cold packs to ease pain
- Use over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs: Such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin)
FAQs about jaw pain
Can jaw pain be caused by ear infection?
Yes, an infection within the ear, called otitis media or middle ear infection, can cause a series of symptoms including referred pain to the angle of the jaw called the temporomandibular joint (TMJ). This pain will resolve with resolution of the infection. You can also take an over-the-counter pain medication such as ibuprofen or other NSAIDs to help tolerate the pain while your body fights the infection.
Can jaw pain be a symptom of a heart attack?
Yes, a heart attack can cause a series of symptoms that may seem unconnected. Classically, you may experience chest pain or chest pressure, shortness of breath, and numbness or tingling radiating to the left arm as well as pain along the line of the jaw.
Why do I have jaw pain with a sinus infection?
A sinus infection can cause pain, especially in the upper jaw as the pressure increases in the sinus cavities of the face. The sinus cavities of the face are continually cleaned out in a normal and healthy individual. If you become sick with an infection of the upper respiratory tract, a combination of swelling of the mucus membranes and an increase in mucus make it more difficult to completely empty the sinuses. As mucus builds up in the sinus cavities, it can lead to compression of nerves that run along the cavity. One of these nerves supplies sensation to the jaw. When it is compressed as it runs through the sinus cavity, you may feel jaw pain.
Is jaw pain caused by stress?
Generally, no, jaw pain is not caused by stress. However, bruxism or teeth grinding, especially at night, is caused by stress. Bruxism can cause tooth loosening and jaw pain. In this way, jaw pain can be caused by a condition that can be caused by stress. A bite guard at night, getting enough sleep, and developing new stress management strategies are ways to avoid tooth grinding.
Can jaw pain feel like a toothache?
A toothache would be categorized as jaw pain. A toothache is caused by damage to or triggering of a nerve that supplies a tooth. This triggers sensitivity in the tooth, and depending on how deeply the nerve is affected, the jaw below the tooth as well. In reality, jaw pain can be a symptom of toothaches.
Questions your doctor may ask about jaw pain
- Have you been experiencing dizziness?
- Do you hear a ringing or whistling sound no one else hears?
- Do you feel a painful, tight knot or band in your muscle anywhere on the body?
- Are you experiencing a headache?
Self-diagnose with our free Buoy Assistant if you answer yes on any of these questions.
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- Prevalence of TMJD and Its Signs and Symptoms. National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research. Updated July 2018. NIDCR Link.
- Gauer RL, Semidey MJ. Diagnosis and Treatment of Temporomandibular Disorders. American Family Physician. 2015;91(6):378-386. AAFP Link.
- Warning Signs of a Heart Attack. American Heart Association. Updated June 30, 2016. AHA Link.
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- Jensen A, Nolet PS, Diwan MA. Oral Squamous Cell Carcinoma: An Atypical Presentation Mimicking Temporomandibular Joint Disorder. The Journal of the Canadian Chiropractic Association. 2004;48(4):266-272. NCBI Link.
- Kaneshiro NK. Earache. U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus. Updated December 3, 2018. MedlinePlus Link.
- Teeth Grinding. National Sleep Foundation. National Sleep Foundation Link.