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Jaw pain is a small term with a large meaning. Pain coming from the jaw, also known as the temporomandibular joint (TMJ), can be debilitating and affect other body parts including your sinuses, ears, teeth, or the muscles and bones. Figuring out the secret behind the TMJ and jaw pain is the key to finding the correct treatment and relief to your symptoms. 

If you’ve ever had jaw pain, then you’ve probably also experienced nagging headaches, jaw popping, neck discomfort and facial pain that come along with it. This occurs mainly because the jaw or temporomandibular joint (TMJ) is a sliding hinge joint responsible for chewing, talking and expressing emotions. Therefore, due to its muscle attachments at the head and neck, you can experience a variety of unpleasant symptoms. TMJ pain is often disabling, significantly impacting the quality of life of those who suffer from it. The best option for treating TMJ pain is to target the cause of the pain, not just the symptoms.

What Does Jaw Pain Mean?

Jaw pain basically means pain that occurs at the temporomandibular joint (TMJ). Pain can affect one or both of your joints. Studies have shown that 50-70% of the population suffers from jaw pain or TMJ problems at some point in time. Females tend to be more affected than their male counterparts.

Find your TMJ: Place your fingers on your earlobes and slide your fingers slightly up to the tragus of your ear (the stiff, fleshy part in front of your ear opening). Now slowly open and close your mouth as you feel two bumps, one on each side, moving underneath your fingers. This is your temporomandibular joint. 

The TMJ is a complex joint made of bones and muscles that allows your jaw to move freely from side to side, up and down, and back and forth. 

The joint includes your skull and jaw, a shock-absorbing disc, and a fatty bundle of nerves and blood vessels known as the retrodiscal pad. The shock-absorbing disc, formally called the fibrocartilage disc, protects the bones from normal wear and tear and acts similarly to the meniscus in your knee. The retrodiscal pad contributes to the overall movement of the muscles, disc, and bones within the TMJ. Because the disc and retrodiscal pad receive their own blood flow and are highly innervated, they’re susceptible to compression, inflammation, and damage.

An injury to any part of the TMJ and its components can result in TMJ dysfunction, commonly referred to as TMD, with or without jaw pain.

Common Signs and Symptoms of TMJ Dysfunction

  • Pain following the course of the jaw joint
  • One sided jaw pain
  • Neck pain, tightness, and/or headaches
  • Ringing in the ear
  • Pain that radiates into the ear
  • Clicking/popping/catching in the jaw joint
  • Pain with eating chewy foods (gummies, steak, bubble gum, etc)
  • Pain with talking and sleeping

Can Jaw Pain Cause Headaches?

Headaches and neck problems can be associated with jaw pain, and usually the neck muscles are to blame. However, it can be difficult to establish the true cause of pain, especially when someone suffers from general or tension headaches. 

Should I Be Concerned If My Jaw is Clicking and Popping?

Many people commonly report clicking and popping that can affect one or both sides of the jaw. This usually occurs when the fibrocartilage disc moves in and out of place between the jaw bone and the skull. While the clicking and popping may not result in pain and discomfort, it does indicate a specific type of TMJ dysfunction. We wrote an entire blog on jaw popping for further details which you can find here “Why Does My Jaw Pop? When You Should Be Concerned About TMJ Pain?”

Let’s explore the three most common causes of jaw clicking and/or popping: 

  1. Anterior disc displacement with reduction – this usually occurs when someone has clicking when opening and closing the jaw. 
  2. Anterior disc displacement without reduction – the fibrocartilage disc slides out of place when the jaw opens, resulting in an initial “click,” but then does not slide back into place once the jaw closes. Therefore, someone may only experience clicking when the jaw is opened. Left untreated, this can lead to decreased range of motion. 
  3. Posterior disc displacement – although rare, this can result after the jaw has been open for a long period of time, like after long dental procedure. The disc slides backwards and becomes stuck within the joint, inhibiting the ability to fully close the jaw. 

How is TMJ Dysfunction Diagnosed?

Diagnosis of TMJ dysfunction is highly dependent on what is happening within the joint and surrounding areas. Unfortunately, imaging (like a CT scan or MRI) is not useful in determining the cause of TMJ dysfunction and jaw pain unless your healthcare provider is concerned about nerve damage or inflammation in the nearby regions.

TMJ dysfunction can be classified into three categories:

  1. An articular disorder typically indicates an issue with the fibrocartilage disc. 
  2. Masticatory muscle disorders refer to overuse problems with the soft tissue or muscles around the TMJ that results in stiffness during movement. 
  3. TMJ can suffer from inflammation and arthritis like all other joints in the body. Some common pathologies include capsulitis, synovitis, osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and psoriatic arthritis.

Your dentist may also want to see if the jaw pain is coming from problems related to your teeth. He or she may recommend imaging to review the structure of each tooth. 

Treating the Symptoms of Jaw Pain 

Common treatment methods for TMJ pain are injections, oral appliances, braces, pain medications, or muscle relaxers. Oftentimes, patients are told to purchase expensive oral appliances or injections to assist in alleviating TMJ pain, but these solutions usually provide temporary relief of symptoms. In addition, medications and muscle relaxers alleviate pain in the short term, but tend to cover up the problem. As a result, these methods focus on treating the “symptoms” of TMJ pain and can cost several thousands of dollars. These methods fall short of treating the “cause” of the problem, leaving patients seeking long term pain relief options. 

Treating the Cause of Jaw Pain

Treatment options which are more effective in the long term focus on addressing the “cause” of the pain. A thorough examination from a physical therapist may show a number of findings: poor control of the jaw muscles, jaw stiffness, myofascial pain, or neck tightness. These findings, if not addressed lead to persistent TMJ pain, headaches and neck pain. We know that there is no one “cure” for jaw pain, however, a blended approach of differential diagnosis, corrective exercise, joint manipulation, and dry needling have been shown to be effective at alleviating symptoms. Above all, treating the “cause” of the pain will help you find long lasting pain relief.   

Lifestyle Changes For TMJ Pain Relief

Changes to your current lifestyle and oral habits can be helpful in stopping jaw pain. For those who are suffering from one-sided jaw pain, try chewing foods on both sides of your mouth at the same time. Avoid keeping your mouth open for long periods of time, and reschedule any unnecessary dentist appointments. Engaging in stress and anxiety management techniques is also strongly encouraged in order to decrease pain that is associated with teeth grinding and jaw clenching.  

Your sleeping position can also affect jaw pain, headaches, and the muscles surrounding the TMJ. Sleeping on your stomach is the worst position for people who suffer from jaw pain because it places unnecessary stress on your neck muscles and jaw. Try laying on your back with proper pillow support behind your head and neck. 

How Long Does Jaw Pain Last?

Jaw pain can linger until the cause is correctly identified and treated. 

Jaw pain without related headaches and neck pain may only require 5-8 visits with physical therapy. However, if you are experiencing other signs and symptoms along with your jaw pain, then expect your recovery to take longer. Your physical therapist will help you to address other problems that may be contributing to your jaw pain like stress and anxiety, lifestyle habits, and workplace ergonomics. 

It’s important to understand that your recovery is fluid, especially if you suffer from flare-ups of jaw pain. Depending on how long you have suffered from jaw pain, you may need to perform maintenance exercises after you have finished with physical therapy in order to avoid slipping back into bad habits. 

Other factors that may affect recovery time include your diet, medical history, any recent dental work that you have had, history of clenching your teeth, history of anxiety or depression, migraines, and family history.

Get Help For Your Jaw Pain At Our Physical Therapy Clinic In Columbus, Ohio

The secret to addressing TMJ pain is understanding the TMJ and finding treatments that will help you based upon your particular problem. For chronic jaw pain, maintaining a resting jaw position and following recommendations for lifestyle changes is crucial to managing your TMJ dysfunction. Keep an eye on your oral habits, posture, and stress levels as these habits can affect your recovery and contribute to pain patterns.

Secondly, the jaw is similar to any other joint in the body and it, too, can benefit from the right form of exercise. While not everyone may require specific exercises to remedy jaw pain, chances are that you still have some weak and tight muscles in the surrounding regions that could benefit from physical therapy. 

Lastly, there are more treatment options available to you than solely using a night splint or night guard. Although some may benefit from using them, they are not a “one-size-fits-all” treatment approach. 

At Peak Physiotherapy and Performance, we treat TMJ disorder frequently. We can help identify the cause of your pain and place you on an individualized treatment plan to find relief. Invest some time in reaching out to us today. If you know of someone who may benefit from this information, please share it with them! 

Check out our FREE guide, The Do’s and Don’t of Jaw Pain to receive tips and informational videos about more ways to reduce jaw pain! 

About the Author

jaw pain, TMJ pain, TMJDr. Andrew Junak is a Doctor of Physical Therapy and Board-Certified Orthopedic Specialist.  Dr. Junak received his Doctorate of Physical Therapy from Walsh University and completed his Orthopedic Specialist training at the Cleveland Clinic Orthopaedic Residency Program. He is the owner of Peak Physiotherapy and Performance, a physical therapy clinic in Canal Winchester, Ohio. Dr Junak serves the local communities of Lancaster, Reynoldsburg, Grove City, Pickerington and Columbus. In his practice, Dr. Junak helps clients with jaw pain, neck pain, and headaches find relief without resorting to medications, injections, or surgery.

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