Jaw Stiffness Symptoms, Causes & Common Questions
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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.
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
- 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
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Tooth abscess (infection)
A tooth abscess is a collection of infected material (pus) in the center of a tooth. It is due to bacterial infection.
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
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..
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.
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
Arthritis is a general term for multiple conditions that cause painful inflammation and stiffness throughout the body. Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic condition that is autoimmune in nature, meaning that the body's immune system which normally protects the body by att..
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.
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.
Dr. Gambrah-Lyles is a resident pediatrician at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. She is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine (2019). She graduated cum laude and received her undergraduate degree in Biochemistry and Spanish from Washington University in St. Louis (2013). Her research explores the intersections between neurology, public health, and infectious disease. She has investigated nutrition and cerebral palsy in Botswana, and completed a year-long project in Brazil, researching growth and developmental outcomes of Zika virus infection in pediatric patients as a Doris Duke International Scholar. Dr. Gambrah-Lyles speaks four languages, loves staying active, and enjoys sharing her love for medicine through teaching and writing.
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