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Jaw Spasms Symptoms, Causes & Statistics

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Last updated August 27, 2020

Jaw spasms questionnaire

Use our free symptom checker to find out what's causing your jaw spasms.

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.

Jaw spasms questionnaire

Use our free symptom checker to find out what's causing your jaw spasms.

Jaw spasms symptom checker

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.

Jaw spasms questionnaire

Use our free symptom checker to find out what's causing your jaw spasms.

Jaw spasms symptom checker

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.

Temporomandibular joint (tmj) dysfunction disorder

Temporomandibular Joint Dysfunction is often caused by a variety of factors, including daily habits, your teeth alignment, and even stress. It usually affects one side of the jaw, but in some people it can affect both sides. People with TMJ dysfunction will typically experience pain on one side of the face that is worse with chewing, yawning, or other movements of the jaw. With some simple changes in your daily habits and other at-home treatments, most people with TMJ dysfunction will experience relief of their symptoms within weeks.

Treatment for temporomandibular joint dysfunction usually includes avoiding eating hard foods or foods that require a lot of chewing. Good posture and relaxation techniques may help relieve tension in the muscles that connect to your temporomandibular joint. In people who clench or grind their teeth, a mouth guard worn at night (and fitted by your dentist) may also help relieve your symptoms. Pain relievers, like ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), can also help.

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

Low calcium level

Hypocalcemia is a condition where there is not enough calcium in the blood. Calcium is a mineral contained in the blood, which helps the heart and other muscles function properly, and is needed to maintain strong teeth and bones.

Rarity: Rare

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

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.

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 genetic condition (runs in families) that results in a severe reaction to anesthesia. The reaction is caused by genetic abnormalities in proteins that control muscle function.

Symptoms include muscle rigidity, very high body temperature, inc..

Jaw spasms questionnaire

Use our free symptom checker to find out what's causing your jaw spasms.

Jaw spasms symptom checker

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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