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Painful Jaw Lump Symptoms, Causes & Common Questions

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Last updated March 16, 2021

Painful jaw lump quiz

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The most common causes for a painful jaw lump include temporomandibular joint dysfunction (TMJ) or mononucleosis infection. Rare causes of painful bump under the chin are osteonecrosis of the jaw and fibrosarcoma. Read below for more information on causes of painful lump on the jaw and treatment options.

Painful jaw lump quiz

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

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Painful lump on jaw/under chin explained

Jaw pain, especially when accompanied by a lump, can be frustrating. It can interfere with your ability to do everyday things like talking and eating. There are a limited number of causes of painful jaw lumps. The best course of treatment for a painful jaw lump will depend on its cause which can be determined by a medical provider.

Common characteristics of painful jaw lumps

Depending on their cause, jaw lumps may be:

  • Large or small
  • Soft or firm
  • Single or multiple
  • Mobile: This means it moves when you touch or press it.
  • Fixed: This means it feels stuck in its location.
  • Tender or not tender

Common accompanying symptoms

Jaw lumps can also be associated with:

  • Difficulty chewing or opening your mouth
  • Pain in the ear or area of the face around the jaw lump
  • Clicking, popping or locking of the jaw during chewing or speaking
  • Redness
  • Pain or tenderness
  • Skin that feels hot to the touch in the area of the lump
  • Fever
  • Cold or flu-like symptoms
  • Chills
  • Night sweats
  • Fatigue

Duration of symptoms

The length of time that you may experience a jaw lump can vary.

  • Temporary: Depending on the cause, a jaw lump may last for only a few days before resolving on its own or you may notice it persist for a week or more.
  • Persistent: You may notice that a jaw lump that is persistent seems to grow over time as well.
  • How to monitor: When monitoring your jaw lump, keep track of its size and color, any associated symptoms, and try to remember when you first noticed it.

What can cause a painful lump on the jaw?

There are a few potential causes for jaw lumps. How serious the jaw lump is and what kind of treatment is required depends on the cause.

Infectious causes

Skin infections or those within the body due to bacteria or viruses can cause painful jaw lumps.

  • Bacterial skin infections: Your skin is covered with hair follicles, tiny sacs from which every strand of hair grows. Sometimes a hair follicle can become infected by bacteria which leads to something called folliculitis. An open cut, if exposed, can also become infected leading to something called cellulitis, an infection of the skin and area under the skin. A skin infection that isn’t cleared up can lead to an abscess which is a pocket of pus that forms as your body tries to fight the infection.
  • Lymph node enlargement: Lymph nodes are small glands where the cells that fight infections live. There are multiple clusters of lymph nodes all over your body and a few clusters are located along and under your jaw. In reacting to infection caused by bacteria, fungi or viruses lymph nodes can grow in size and appear as single or multiple lumps along or under your jaw.
  • Salivary gland obstruction and infection: The salivary glands are small glands that produce saliva to lubricate food and start the digestion process. Some of these salivary glands live under the tongue and on the floor of your mouth. Sometimes the ducts through which saliva is secreted into your mouth can become narrow and/or blocked by crystallized saliva. When this happens, saliva gets backed up into the gland, and this can lead to pain and/or swelling of the glands and can potentially lead to infection of the salivary glands. Sometimes this can appear as a painful lump under the chin.

Traumatic causes

Injury to the jaw can cause a jaw fracture which may lead to a painful lump in the region of the fracture. Typically, an injury has to be due to severe force in order to lead to a jaw fracture. Painful jaw lumps can also sometimes be due to overuse or strain of the jaw joint, which can be associated with clicking, popping or locking of the jaw with chewing or talking.

Abnormal growth

Sometimes a jaw lump can be caused by abnormal growth of a variety of different cells that make up your body. These can include:

  • Fat cells: These can grow into lumps called lipomas.
  • Keratin collections: Jaw lumps can also be caused by a collection of keratin, the main protein in your skin, which can lead to cysts.
  • Blood cells: When blood cells undergo abnormal growth or division, this can lead to lymphoma, a cancer of the blood cell system. Sometimes these cells can grow or divide inside lymph nodes under the jaw, leading to jaw lumps, along with other symptoms like fatigue, weight loss, and night sweats. However, jaw lumps associated with cancers are usually not painful.
  • Connective tissue and bone cells: These cells can grow abnormally into lumps called fibrosarcomas.

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

Painful jaw lump quiz

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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

Osteonecrosis of the jaw

This is a condition where the jaw bone is exposed (this happens if it is not covered by gums). To be called osteonecrosis of the jaw (ONJ), this condition must persist for at least 8 weeks. This disease is common among people taking medications called bisphosphonates or RANKL inhibitors.

You should visit your primary care physician. This condition is usually treated conservatively with rinses, antibiotics, and pain medication for the mouth.

Osteoma of skull and facial bones

An osteoma is a benign (non-cancerous) outgrowth of bone, usually in the skull and facial bones. They are slow growing and usually cause no symptoms. Osteomas are noticed once they begin causing problems with breathing, vision, or hearing.

You should visit your primary care physician. Surgical excision is the preferred route of treatment.

Mononucleosis infection

Mononucleosis, or "mono," is a viral infection that can cause fatigue, fever, sore throat, and swollen lymph nodes. Sometimes this infection is referred to as the "kissing disease" because people catch the virus by contact with others' saliva. This can happen when kissing and sharing utensils/food/drink. People usually start to feel better within 1-2 weeks, but it can take a month or more to feel completely back to normal.

You should visit your primary care physician in the next 1-2 days. While fatigue is usually more profound in mono infections, the symptoms are similar to strep throat, so it's important to confirm the diagnosis. A throat swab can be done to look for strep throat. Blood tests can check for mono, but even if you have mono, the test might not show the infection until 2 weeks after your symptoms started. Treatment revolves around treating your symptoms in order to stay as comfortable as possible. This may include resting, staying well hydrated and taking acetaminophen or ibuprofen to reduce your pain or fever. Because mono can cause the spleen to get abnormally large, it is important to avoid strenuous physical activity or contact sports for at least one month.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: fatigue, headache, loss of appetite, abdominal pain (stomach ache), cough

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Fibrosarcoma

The connective tissue found at the ends of bones of the arm or legs can change significantly with aging. Some of these changes can become a serious health risk.

You should see your primary care doctor in the next few days to have your symptoms evaluated. It is likely that your physician will want to perform imaging (x-ray or MRI).

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.

At-home and professional treatments for a painful jaw lump

At-home treatment

There are certain at-home remedies you can try to alleviate symptoms of painful jaw lumps.

  • Warm and cold compresses: These can help reduce pain and swelling if your jaw lump is due to infection, trauma or salivary gland obstruction.
  • Over-the-counter medications: NSAIDs like ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) or naproxen (Aleve) and aspirin can help reduce pain, swelling, and redness because they work by reducing inflammation in your body. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) can also help with pain and fever but does not address inflammation.
  • Fluid intake: If your jaw lump is due to an infectious cause, increasing your fluid intake is critical in order to stay hydrated and keep your body strong enough to fight the infection, especially if you also have a fever.
  • Salivary gland massage: If your jaw lump is due to salivary gland obstruction, massaging under your chin can sometimes help loosen whatever is trapped in the duct. Sour candies can also encourage saliva flow which may help dislodge the obstruction.

When to see a doctor

While some jaw lumps can be treated with at-home remedies, some require evaluation by a medical professional, especially if you notice any of the following:

  • Redness that is worsening or spreading around the lump
  • Fever
  • Difficulty opening or closing your jaw

Medical treatments

If more conservative measures are ineffective, there are some treatments that can be completed by your medical provider, such as:

  • Incision and drainage: If your jaw lump is caused by an infection that has led to a collection of pus under your skin, a medical professional may need to cut a small hole (incision) in the skin overlying the lump in order to drain the pus collection.
  • Antibiotics: You may also be prescribed an antibiotic in pill or cream/ointment form in order to fight the infection if the jaw lump is due to a bacterial cause.
  • Surgery: If the jaw lump is caused by an abnormal growth of cells, a physician may recommend surgery to remove the lump to assess what kind of cells are causing the growth and whether the growth is cancerous or not. Sometimes this surgery happens after a biopsy during which a small sample of the lump is taken and pathologist looks at the sample under a microscope to determine whether the abnormal cells are cancerous or at risk of becoming cancerous. If your jaw lump is caused by salivary gland obstruction, you may need a minor surgery to open up the gland or duct and remove the blockage.

When it is an emergency

You should seek immediate medical attention if your painful jaw lump is associated with any of the following symptoms or factors:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • High fever
  • Severe, sudden, or worsening pain and/or swelling
  • Nausea and/or vomiting

Painful jaw lump quiz

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

Take painful jaw lump quiz

FAQs about painful jaw lump

Will my jaw lump go away on its own?

It depends. If your jaw lump is due to abnormal cell growth, it might stay the same, grow, or shrink. If it is caused by infection, it might go away on its own as your body fights the infection or it might go away with some over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication like Advil or Motrin. If the infection has caused a collection of pus (an abscess) to form, it might go away, but typically this requires draining by a medical professional. Any lump that persists or grows over time should be seen by a medical provider.

Can a jaw lump mean cancer?

Sometimes a jaw lump can be due to cancer, but other causes of jaw lumps are more common. When jaw lumps are due to cancer, they are typically caused by the abnormal growth or multiplication of white blood cells, the cells in your body that usually fight infection. These white blood cells live in lymph nodes, small glands located in clusters all around your body. Usually, lymph nodes grow in size when reacting to infection caused by bacteria, fungi or viruses. More rarely, in a form of cancer called lymphoma, lymph nodes can enlarge if your white blood cells are growing abnormally. Lymph nodes from cancer are usually painless and associated with other symptoms like fatigue, unexplained weight loss, night sweats, fevers and/or chills. If you have any of these symptoms along with a jaw lump you should see a medical professional as soon as possible.

Can a jaw lump mean cancer somewhere else in my body?

Sometimes a jaw lump due to an enlarged lymph node can be a warning of cancer in another part of the body. Most commonly, cancerous lymph nodes under or along the jaw indicate cancer of the head and neck. Head and neck cancers most commonly start in the oral cavity region (including the tongue, hard palate, cheek, and gums), throat region (including the tonsils, base of tongue, and soft palate) and the larynx or voice box. Head and neck cancer is typically associated with tobacco or alcohol use.

How can I reduce my chances of being diagnosed with cancer?

Tobacco and alcohol are both risk factors that significantly increase the chances of many types of cancer. If you smoke, quitting can drastically reduce the risk of future cancers, and if you drink, cutting back significantly or avoiding alcohol altogether will decrease your risk of cancer. Some types of cancer are associated with HPV, one of the most common sexually transmitted infections. Rates of HPV associated with human papillomavirus or HPV and HPV associated cancers are unfortunately increasing. Vaccination with the anti-HPV vaccine can reduce the risk of many types of cancer and the vaccine is approved for people aged 11 to 45 years old.

Is my painful jaw lump serious?

A small jaw lump that resolves on its own is typically not serious. A jaw lump that persists for two or more weeks should be seen by a medical provider. A large jaw lump that is associated with redness or pain that does not seem to be resolving should be seen by a medical professional, especially if you also have a fever. Jaw lumps that are growing and/or feel fixed in place may be a sign of cancer, especially if associated with unexplained weight loss, fever or night sweats, and should be seen by a medical provider as soon as possible.

Questions your doctor may ask about painful jaw lump

  • Are you experiencing a headache?
  • Do you have a sore throat?
  • Do you have a rash?
  • Have you been experiencing a deep, aching bone pain that started for no apparent reason?

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. Skin and soft tissue infections. American Family Physician. 2015;92(6):online. AAFP Link
  2. Folliculitis and carbuncles. Massachusetts General Hospital. Mass General Hospital Link
  3. Cellulitis. U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus. Updated June 6, 2018. MedlinePlus Link
  4. Abscess. U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus. Updated June 6, 2018. MedlinePlus Link
  5. Cysts. American Osteopathic College of Dermatology. AOCD Link