Is jaw pain a symptom of something serious?
Jaw pain can be a sign of something as common and everyday as muscle tension or a toothache – or it could be a warning signal of far more serious medical conditions. James Curtis, DMD, explained the most common causes of pain in the jaw, what serious concerns to watch for and how to treat the cause of the pain and get back to feeling comfortable again.
Seven common causes of jaw pain
“The two most often seen causes of pain felt in the jaw include injury or infection,” said Dr. Curtis. “Beyond that, we see this pain arising from a whole variety of medical concerns, some of which require immediate medical attention.”
- Injury to the jaw: You might experience pain after a fall at home, a car crash, sports injuries or any other trauma to the head. Bruises, pain, swelling or even loose teeth may also occur. You can also develop TMJ, which causes clicking, difficult opening your mouth or pain as a result.
- Dental infections: Toothaches due to a cavity or abscess might be felt within the jaw. Wisdom teeth coming in is a common cause of jaw pain in adolescents, as are misaligned teeth, tooth grinding or jaw clenching, cracked, crowded, or oversensitive teeth and infection of the gum, which can damage the jawbone itself.
- Joint problems or inflammation: TMD, temporomandibular disorders, are disorders that affect the jaw joint and can cause serious pain in the head and jaw. Rheumatoid arthritis, an inflammatory autoimmune disease, can also attack your jaw joint, causing it to feel stiff and sore.
- Sinusitis: If you think your jaw seems to ache whenever you have a sinus infection, you might be on the right track! Chronic sinusitis, which keeps tissues in the face swollen and inflamed for months at a time, can cause significant pain in the jaw.
- Osteomyelitis: When the lower jawbone, or mandible, becomes infected, it may cause a condition called anaerobic osteomyelitis. This needs immediate diagnosis and treatment so that the jaw isn’t permanently damaged.
- Mumps, tetanus and multiple sclerosis: While most individuals are vaccinated against mumps and tetanus, both of these infections can cause potentially severe pain. Multiple sclerosis is also associated with jaw pain, as it sometimes can cause trigeminal neuralgia, where a blood vessel presses against a nerve in your face and causes pain and discomfort.
- Heart attack: It might seem unlikely, but jaw pain is sometimes the only symptom an individual experiences of a heart attack! Referred pain, where pain caused in one place is felt in another, is common with heart conditions. If moving your jaw around has a significant effect on your pain level, it is likely not referred pain.
If your pain is ongoing and has no obvious cause, seek medical attention immediately.
How is jaw pain treated?
“To alleviate pain felt in the jaw, you really have to address what’s causing it,” said Dr. Curtis. “Over-the-counter painkillers like ibuprofen or acetaminophen help you deal with the symptoms, but they won’t treat the condition causing the pain in the first place.”
For pain caused by a dental abscess, gum disease or tooth infection, treating the infection may relieve the pain permanently. These diseases are usually treated through antibiotics, fillings, root canals and crowns or sometimes tooth extraction. Injuries to the jaw caused by trauma, however, may simply need time. Treat the pain while healing the underlying injury, and the pain will fade.
Your dentist may suggest or prescribe a mouthguard to wear, especially if your pain is caused by tooth grinding during your sleep. You can purchase these at a pharmacy, but your dentist can also have one made that is custom fitted to your teeth and may be more comfortable for everyday wear.
Muscle relaxers or Botox injections may also be utilized if the mouthguard does not provide relief. When injected into the jaw muscle, Botox can help keep jaw muscles from clenching, which may remove pain in some circumstances. However, these are not always effective for treating the underlying issue and may not be the right options for you.
Rarely, a doctor will recommend jaw surgery to correct the condition causing your pain. This is generally only going to be suggested when the patient is dealing with severe pain caused by structural problems in the jaw joint.
If you experience ongoing jaw pain, it’s important to schedule an appointment with a dentist as soon as possible to nail down the cause and begin treatment.
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