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Jaw Spasms Symptoms, Causes & Statistics

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Last updated August 27, 2020

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Jaw spasms, also known as trismus, is a common condition that can be caused by dental infection, dental damage, or trauma from an injury to the face, neck, or head. Locked jaw causes derive from temporomandibular joint dysfunction (TMJ). Other causes for jaw twitching and cramping can come from taking certain medication. Learn more about this condition and treatment options below.

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Symptoms of jaw spasm

A jaw spasm can be a painful and distressing symptom to experience. It happens when some of the muscles in your jaw tighten up and don't want to relax.

The basic explanation is that there has been damage to, or interference with, your facial nerves or muscles. There are many conditions that can cause this damage and make your jaw muscles lock up, and it can sometimes take a little detective work on the part of your medical provider to pin down the exact cause.

Jaw spasm is also known as trismus, which means you are unable to completely open your mouth. The general term "lockjaw" is sometimes used for trismus, though in most cases lockjaw refers only to the bacterial illness called tetanus.

Other names for jaw spasm are jaw dystonia and oromandibular dystonia, which literally mean "incorrect muscle tone in the mouth and jaw." Any jaw pain or difficulty with the joint may be called temporomandibular joint disorder, also known as TMJ or TMJD.

Common characteristics of jaw spasms

If you're experiencing jaw spasms, they can likely be described by the following details.

  • Pain, stiffness, and discomfort: This may be in one or both sides of your jaw and/or face.
  • Difficulty or inability to open your mouth completely
  • Trouble speaking
  • Difficulty eating solid food
  • Vision changes or a lack of focus
  • Earache or hearing loss

Duration of symptoms

Some cases of jaw spasms clear up spontaneously. However, many cases become chronic and interfere with activities of daily living if not treated.

Who is most often affected by jaw spasms?

People are not usually affected until they are over the age of 40 or so, and women are diagnosed with jaw spasms and TMJD more often than men.

Are jaw spasms serious?

The severity of your jaw spasms will ultimately be dependent on the cause.

  • Not serious: Some cases are mild and temporary after a procedure such as oral surgery, and the symptoms clear up on their own.
  • Moderately serious: Other cases may start to interfere with speaking or chewing and begin to affect activities of daily living.
  • Serious: Jaw spasms are not dangerous in themselves, but if the symptoms become severe and ongoing, they can make a significant impact on your quality of life. The condition may cause you to avoid work, exercise, and social gatherings. Treatment to ease discomfort and manage the stress of your condition is almost always recommended.

What causes jaw spasms and twitching?

Many conditions can have jaw spasm as a symptom. The most common are those involving dental or infectious causes, as well as trauma from injury or surgery.

Disease-related causes

Causes of jaw spasms that indicate disease include the following.

  • Abscesses: These are pockets of infection, and they can be found in the tissues of your mouth and/or throat.
  • Systemic bacterial infection
  • Degenerative diseases of the TMJ
  • Seizures
  • Stroke
  • Tumors of the mouth or jaw: However, these are considered rare.

Dental causes

Damage from needles used in your inner cheek muscles, as with those used for dental anesthesia (Novocain injections) or damage to your jaw from oral surgery, such as molar extraction, can result in jaw spasms.

Traumatic causes

Traumatic causes of jaw spasms may include the following.

  • Injury: Such as fractures or dislocations of your jaw from an impact
  • Foreign body in the muscles of your jaw: Although this sounds strange, debris may become lodged in the jaw from falling down or being in an automobile accident.
  • Surgical damage: If you have had surgery on your head, neck, or face, or especially to your temporomandibular joint (TMJ), this may result in jaw spasms if a complication occurred. Jaw spams can also occur if you incur damage to your jaw structure from intubation during surgery or other lifesaving procedures.

Medication-related causes

Taking the following medications may result in jaw spasms as a side-effect.

  • Tricyclic antidepressants
  • Phenothiazine medications: Used as anti-psychotics
  • Some chemotherapy drugs
  • Some types of radiation therapy
  • Some illicit stimulant drugs

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

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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

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.

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

Malignant hyperthermia

Malignant hyperthermia is a rare life-threatening condition usually triggered by drugs like general anesthesia. In certain individuals, these drugs can cause a drastic increase in carbon dioxide, decrease in body temperature, muscle rigidity and ultimately death if not immediately treated.

Call 911 for an ambulance now. This is a life-threatening condition that needs to be treated at the hospital.

Low calcium level

Hypocalcemia is a condition where there is not enough calcium in the blood. Calcium is a mineral contained in the blood and helps the heart and other muscles function properly. It is also needed to maintain healthy teeth and bones. Low calcium levels can cause bones to become brittle and more easily fractured. Parathyroid issues and vitamin D deficiency are common causes of this condition.

You should consider visiting a medical professional to discuss your symptoms. Low calcium levels can be evaluated with a review of your symptoms and a blood test. Once diagnosed, treatment depends on the cause of your low calcium levels.

Rarity: Rare

Top Symptoms: fatigue, shortness of breath, irritability, general numbness, tingling foot

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Fibromyalgia

Fibromyalgia is a set of chronic symptoms that include ongoing fatigue, diffuse tenderness to touch, musculoskeletal pain, and usually some degree of depression.

The cause is not known. When fibromyalgia appears, it is usually after a stressful physical or emotional event such as an automobile accident or a divorce. It may include a genetic component where the person experiences normal sensation as pain.

Almost 90% of fibromyalgia sufferers are women. Anyone with rheumatic disease, such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus, may be more prone to fibromyalgia.

Poor sleep is often a symptom, along with foggy thinking, headaches, painful menstrual periods, and increased sensitivity to heat, cold, bright lights, and loud noises.

There is no standard test for fibromyalgia. The diagnosis is usually made when the above symptoms go on for three months or more with no apparent cause.

Fibromyalgia does not go away on its own but does not get worse, either.

Treatment involves easing symptoms and improving the patient's quality of life through pain medications, exercise, improved diet, and help with managing stressful situations.

Jaw spasms quiz

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

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Jaw spasm treatment options

When jaw spasms are an emergency

Seek immediate treatment in the emergency room or call 911 if you are experiencing severe stiffness and locking of the jaw muscles, with stiff neck, inability to swallow, and painful, wracking spasms of the body. These can be symptoms of tetanus.

When to see a doctor for jaw spasms

Even for milder symptoms of jaw stiffness, pain, and discomfort, you should still schedule an appointment. Your medical provider may be able to provide muscle relaxants and physical therapy. These milder symptoms might also respond to acupuncture, Botox injections, and stress management. Even though jaw spasms are not psychological, a counselor can often help with managing and living with this condition.

At-home treatments

At-home treatments that may be helpful for jaw spasms include the following.

  • Heat: Such as with hot compresses or a warming pad
  • NSAIDs: Over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) usually help.
  • Modify your diet: Try eating only soft or liquid foods for a while.
  • Exercises: Keep up with any jaw-stretching exercises that you are given.

FAQs about jaw spasms

What does a jaw spasm feel like?

Jaw spasms are involuntary and repetitive movements of the jaw-closing muscles that can be accompanied by electric shock-like pain.

Can jaw spasms cause you to bite your tongue?

Yes, jaw spasms can definitely cause you to bite your tongue.

Can TMJ disorders cause jaw spasms?

Yes, temporomandibular joint disorders, or TMJ disorders can cause jaw spasms. An unstable joint from TMJ dysfunction causes increased strain and tension to the muscles responsible for talking, chewing, swallowing, yawning, and other movements. As a result, the muscles can become excessively fatigued and become more susceptible to spasms.

Why do I have jaw spasms while sleeping?

Jaw spasms occurring at night are likely related to grinding your teeth at night, a condition known as bruxism. Grinding your teeth increases the strain on your facial muscles, increasing the likelihood of developing jaw spasms.

Can stress cause jaw spasms?

Yes, stress is a major cause of teeth grinding, which is a known risk factor for increasing the likelihood of developing jaw spasm.

Hear what 1 other is saying
Biting my tonguePosted April 19, 2021 by S.
My jaw involuntarily snaps shut, which frequently causes me to bite my tongue. I am trying to develop the habit of always keeping my tongue within the well between my teeth to protect it, but since there's no warning of such snaps, this doesn't always work. I don't know if these snaps will increase in frequency or if they are a symptom of something else developing. I wonder how this can be treated.
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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