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Jaw Stiffness Symptoms, Causes & Common Questions

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Last updated January 20, 2022

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Jaw stiffness is often associated with pain, tenderness, or swelling, and be caused by a variety of conditions, including anatomy, inflammation-related causes, trauma-related causes, or excess stimulation. Read below to learn more about jaw stiffness and its causes.

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

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Symptoms of jaw stiffness

Jaw stiffness is a very uncomfortable feeling that often affects essential movements such as eating and speaking. Considering these two movements often define the best parts of our day, this feeling can be understandably frustrating.

Common accompanying symptoms of jaw stiffness

If you're experiencing jaw stiffness, it is also likely to experience:

  • Pain or tenderness
  • Swelling
  • Redness or warmth to the touch
  • Popping or clicking noises upon movement
  • A locking or catching sensation: Likely making it difficult to open the mouth
  • Difficulty or pain while chewing
  • Fever

If you notice stiffness in the jaw and any of these associated symptoms, make an appointment with your physician. Sometimes, without appropriate follow-up jaw stiffness can worsen to include more severe pain and other complications.

What causes jaw stiffness?

Stiffness in the jaw usually happens due to inflammation or injury to the jaw's components.

Jaw anatomy

The components of the jaw include:

  • Bones: The upper jaw bone, or maxilla, is fixed and does not move. The lower jaw bone, or mandible, is the moveable part of the jaw. These bones are connected to each other via a hinge called the temporomandibular joint located right in front of the ear.
  • Muscles: The muscles of the jaw facilitate chewing and other movements of the mouth.
  • Nerves: The main nerves to the jaw and its components are the facial and trigeminal nerve. The facial nerve allows movement of the different facial muscles; it is very important for chewing. The trigeminal nerve provides sensation to the scalp and face.
  • Teeth: It may seem obvious, but the teeth are often forgotten when thinking about the different components of the jaw.

Dysfunction in the different components of the jaw can be classified under the umbrella term temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder. Many different triggers are thought to cause this condition, so it is important to make an appointment with your physician in order to discuss causes and appropriate treatment.

Inflammation-related causes

Inflammation of the jaw can lead to stiffness, potentially due to the following.

  • Arthritis: Arthritis is a general term for multiple conditions that cause painful inflammation and stiffness of the bones and joints. Though less common, arthritic processes can affect the parts of the jaw resulting in stiffness and difficulty moving the mouth, especially if arthritis affects the disc that help support jaw movements.
  • Infection: Infections can cause inflammation in the different components of the jaw that lead to stiffness. An infection of the tooth that forms an abscess (a pus-filled pocket), can cause extreme stiffness, pain and discomfort along with a heavy sensation in the jaw. Tetanus affects the entire nervous system and can result in excessive muscle contraction that affects the jaw muscles. This type of infection will cause stiffness not only in the jaw but also in other parts of the body such as the neck, abdomen and legs. Due to the tetanus vaccine, jaw stiffness in this context is rare.

Trauma-related causes

Direct injury to the jaw from a fall or punch to the face can result in stiffness due to fractures or bruising or resultant swelling. Stiffness after trauma is difficult to recognize due to pain that accompanies traumatic injury; however, stiffness that lasts days or weeks after the event can signal an underlying issue. If you experience direct trauma to the jaw, seek emergency medical attention to assess for broken bones.

Excess stimulation

The jaw is very much like other muscles and joints in the body that can become stiff and sore with overuse or excessive stimulation. Conditions that cause excessive movement or stimulation of the jaw — such as teeth grinding at night (bruxism) or jaw clenching in certain situations can overwork the jaw and cause stiffness.

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.

Rarity: Uncommon

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

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.

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.

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.

Fibrous dysplasia of bone

This is a genetic condition where part of a bone develops incorrectly using the wrong type of materials (fibrous instead of bony tissue), causing a weak area of bone that is prone to fractures. This process begins before birth, and the cause of the gene mutation is not fully known.

You should visit your primary care physician who will confirm the diagnosis with X-Ray. Surgical treatment is often necessary to stabilize the bone.

Rarity: Ultra rare

Top Symptoms: spontaneous bone pain, groin pain, pain in one thigh, spontaneous hip pain, upper leg bump

Symptoms that always occur with fibrous dysplasia of bone: spontaneous bone pain

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 stiffness quiz

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

Take jaw stiffness quiz

Jaw stiffness treatments and relief

At-home treatments for jaw stiffness

If you experience jaw stiffness, first try applying ice or heat to the area to provide relief. Putting an ice pack wrapped in a towel or heat pack on the stiff area every 15 to 20 minutes can help reduce inflammation, relax muscles and relieve pain and stiffness.

Prevention

Think about ways in which you overuse/overstimulate your jaw muscles and make lifestyle changes to prevent symptoms.

  • Prevent teeth grinding: Wear a mouthguard or other device when possible, such as during sleep, to lessen irritation from repetitive actions such as teeth grinding.
  • Notice unnecessary stress in the jaw muscles: Some people will (knowingly or unknowingly) bite down or clench the jaw in situations of stress or anger. With mindfulness, this detrimental habit can be prevented and resolve your jaw stiffness and its associated symptoms.
  • Lessen chewing and overuse: Eating softer, less sticky foods can go a long way in helping you combat your jaw stiffness symptoms. Also try to cut food into smaller pieces to lessen the amount of effort you need to chew and digest your food.

When to see a doctor for jaw stiffness

However, if ice/heat packs and lifestyle changes do not help your jaw stiffness and your symptoms persist, seek medical attention.

  • Anti-inflammatory medication: If your jaw stiffness is due to inflammatory conditions, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics to treat an infection or anti-inflammatory medications to treat arthritic conditions. Sometimes these medications can be in the form of injections.
  • Surgery: When all of the above methods do not work in relieving your symptoms, your physician may suggest surgical intervention to treat your recurrent jaw stiffness.

When jaw stiffness is an emergency

If you experience jaw stiffness in the context of a puncture wound such as from a rusty nail, go to the emergency room immediately, especially if you are unsure of your tetanus vaccination status.

Questions your doctor may ask about jaw stiffness

  • 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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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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References

  1. Temporomandibular Joint Disorder. Cedars-Sinai. Cedars-Sinai Link.
  2. Ghatak RN, Ginglen JG. Anatomy, Head and Neck, Mandibular Nerve. In: StatPearls. Treasure Island, FL: StatPearls Publishing; 2018. NCBI Link.
  3. Husney A, Romito K, eds. Temporomandibular Disorders (TMD): Topic Overview. PeaceHealth. Updated March 27, 2018. PeaceHealth Link.
  4. Tetanus (Lockjaw). Minnesota Department of Health. Published August 2016. Minnesota Department of Health Link.
  5. Husney A, Romito K, eds. Temporomandibular Disorders (TMD): What Happens. PeaceHealth. Updated March 27, 2018. PeaceHealth Link.
  6. When to Go to the ER. UnitedRegional Physician Group. UR Physician Group