Severe Jaw Pain Symptoms, Causes & Common Questions
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Severe jaw pain symptoms
The jaw is a system of bones, hinges, and muscles that function to move the mouth. The upper jaw (also known as the maxilla) is fixed and immovable. The mandible is the lower, movable part of the jaw. The muscles of the jaw help to facilitate chewing and other movements of the mouth.
Jaw pain can affect your ability to eat and speak greatly inhibiting everyday activities. When severe, jaw pain can be an extremely debilitating condition and can signal causes that vary in severity.
Common characteristics of severe jaw pain
Severe jaw pain often results in symptoms such as:
- Pain that radiates to or from the ear
- Pain with chewing
- Locking sensation: Difficulty opening the mouth to eat, drink, or take medication
- Shooting pains or spasms
- Tenderness around the nose and eyes
- Persistent facial pain
If you experience such symptoms on a consistent basis, make an appointment with your physician as soon as possible to get appropriate care and follow-up.
Causes of severe jaw pain
Conditions that affect the jaw itself can result in severe pain. However, conditions that affect different parts of the face the sinuses, ears, and teeth can also cause severe jaw pain. This makes it difficult to assess if jaw pain is because of a jaw issue or other condition. As a result, it is very important to make an appointment with your physician in order to discuss the possible causes of your pain.
Dysfunction in the different components of the jaw itself is called temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder. TMJ Disorder can result from injury or trauma to the jaw, excess stimulation of the jaw, or mechanical issues with the discs that help support jaw movements. Furthermore, diseases or syndromes that affect the bones themselves for example, Paget's disease of the bone can also result in severe pain.
Neurologic causes of jaw pain may include the following.
- Neuropathic: The word neuropathic refers to a disruption in nerve functioning. Severe jaw pain can be caused by a malfunction of the trigeminal nerve the nerve that provides sensation to the scalp and face. Often the jaw pain is triggered by everyday actions such as brushing your teeth, shaving, speaking, and even a gentle breeze.
- Central: Central neurologic causes such as headaches and migraines can also be associated with severe jaw pain. Often the pain will be associated with eye pain that radiates to the jaw.
Causes related to inflammation of the jaw may include the following.
- Infection: Infection of different components of the face can cause pressure and jaw pain. For example, sinusitis is an infection of the air-filled cavities (sinuses) in the face. When the sinuses become infected, drainage of mucus and fluids is obstructed. The excess mucus can put extreme pressure on the face and radiate to the jaw. Similarly, the bones of the jaw themselves can become infected. This condition is known as osteomyelitis.
- Vasculitis: Vasculitis is the umbrella term for inflammation of the blood vessels. Some autoimmune diseases can cause inflammation of the blood vessels in your head leading to facial pain that can radiate to the jaw. One such condition is called Giant Cell Arteritis or Temporal Arteritis.
- 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 difficulties in movement and pain.
Since the teeth are in such close proximity to the jaw, conditions that directly affect the teeth can result in severe jaw pain. For example, an infection that specifically affects the teeth can result in abscesses (collections of pus due to infection) that can radiate to the jaw. Mechanical habits such as teeth grinding and jaw clenching can also cause severe jaw pain over a period of time.
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
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.
Top Symptoms: swelling on one side of the face, swollen jaw, painful face swelling, spontaneous jaw pain, painful jaw swelling
Urgency: Phone call or in-person visit
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.
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
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
Infected wisdom tooth (pericoronitis)
Pericoronitis of the 3rd molar is an infection of the gums surrounding the 3rd molar (wisdom tooth). It almost never happens to normal teeth because wisdom teeth take a long time to break the gums (erupt). It's believed that once the wisdom tooth breaks the surface of the gums, the bacteria in the mouth get into the gums at that spot and cause an infection. This is also worsened by food particles that build up in the area.
Top Symptoms: possible wisdom tooth pain, moderate tooth pain, tooth pain that makes chewing difficult, severe tooth pain, mild tooth pain
Symptoms that always occur with infected wisdom tooth (pericoronitis): possible wisdom tooth pain
Urgency: In-person visit
Tension headache (first onset)
Tension-type headaches are the most common type of headache. It is pain or discomfort in the head and/or neck. It's often associated with muscle tightness in these areas. This condition can occur as little as once a year (infrequent) but as often as more than 15 days per month (chronic). The cause of tension-type headaches is not clear.
Top Symptoms: new headache, nausea or vomiting, moderate headache, loss of appetite, mild headache
Symptoms that always occur with tension headache (first onset): new headache
Symptoms that never occur with tension headache (first onset): photo and phonophobia, throbbing headache, headache resulting from a head injury
Dislocation of the jaw
A jaw dislocation is when the bones of the mandible (lower jaw) come unhinged from the bones of the side of the head.
Top Symptoms: jaw pain from an injury, locking or dislocating jaw
Symptoms that always occur with dislocation of the jaw: jaw pain from an injury
Urgency: Hospital emergency room
Severe jaw pain treatments and relief
The recommended at-home treatment described below applying ice or heat is only a temporary solution. You should seek professional treatment for severe jaw pain sooner than later.
If you experience an episode of severe jaw pain at home, applying ice or heat can provide immediate relief. Put an ice pack on your face wrapped in a towel every 15 minutes in order to reduce pain. Applying heat can help relax muscles and relieve pain as well.
It is necessary to make an appointment with your physician in order to get treatment such as:
- Pain medication: Your physician may recommend non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to fight pain as well as inflammation that may be contributing to your severe jaw pain.
- Anticonvulsants: Several anticonvulsant medications are used to combat nerve pain and your physician may prescribe medications such as gabapentin (Neurontin) or carbamazepine.
- Antibiotics: If your severe jaw pain is due to infectious causes due to bacteria affecting your sinuses, your physician will prescribe the appropriate antibiotic medication to combat your symptoms. Viral causes will not resolve with antibiotics, and your physician will most likely suggest supportive remedies if that is the case.
- Surgery: There are surgical procedures that can destroy nerve fibers in the face to reduce pain symptoms, especially for the neurological causes of severe jaw pain. Non-invasive and invasive surgeries can also be used to relieve pain caused by TMJ disorders.
Seek immediate treatment for the following
The following could be signs of Temporal Arteritis which must be treated quickly as this disease can severely damage vision:
Questions your doctor may ask about severe jaw pain
- Have you been experiencing dizziness?
- Do you hear a ringing or whistling sound no one else hears?
- Are you experiencing a headache?
- Do you feel a painful, tight knot or band in your muscle anywhere on the body?
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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- Robertson DP, Keys W, Rautemaa-Richardson R, Burns R, Smith AJ. Management of Severe Acute Dental Infections. BMJ. 2015;350. BMJ Link
- Giant Cell Arteritis. U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus. Updated August 10, 2018. MedlinePlus Link