Understanding the causes of jaw pain is the first step in relieving that impossible-to-ignore ache—which, if you deal with jaw pain, is probably exactly what you want to do. Who could blame you? It sucks to be in pain while doing basic things like talking, drinking, chewing, and making facial expressions, and your jaw is unfortunately deeply involved in all of the above. Then there’s the fact that sometimes your jaw might hurt when you’re not even actively using it. Some good news, though: Doctors have plenty of ways to address frustrating jaw pain, including both long-term treatments and in-the-moment relief. Below, find out the most common causes of jaw pain and what to do about them.
1. You grind or clench your teeth.
If you do, there’s a pretty good chance it’s because you’re stressed out. That’s because people who are under stress or have anxiety can develop parafunctional habits, Robert S. Glickman, D.M.D., chair and professor of oral and maxillofacial surgery at the NYU College of Dentistry, tells SELF. This basically means they use their mouths or teeth in ways beyond their intended functions, like chewing food.
Grinding your teeth—also known as bruxism—is a classic parafunctional habit. It happens when you clench your teeth together without realizing it, which can create a lot of tension in your teeth and jaw, along with the muscles, tendons, and ligaments that support your jaw, Dr. Glickman says. This can leave you in serious pain, not only jaw pain but also sometimes headaches and earaches. Doctors aren’t totally sure what causes bruxism, but stress is a major risk factor, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Grinding your teeth when you’re awake can be annoying and painful, but at least you might be aware it’s happening and can try to stop it. Sleep bruxism, on the other hand, can be harder to quell. The theory is that it’s connected to what’s called the arousal response, which is a change in the depth of your sleep (when you sleep lighter or wake up).
If you suspect that you’re grinding your teeth at night, your doctor may prescribe a night guard, which acts as a protective layer between your top and bottom teeth to help relieve grinding-related tension. They may also have tips on how to deal with stress that could be behind your bruxism.
2. You have a TMJ disorder.
You have a temporomandibular joint (TMJ) on each side of your jawbone to act as a hinge that connects your jaw to your skull, according to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR). Like most parts of your body, sometimes your temporomandibular joints can act up, resulting in a TMJ disorder. For example, the disc can erode or move out of alignment, or something can damage the joint, like a physical blow or arthritis, according to the Mayo Clinic. The scientific jury is still out on what causes TMJ disorders.
Although there’s a variety of TMJ disorders, they share jaw pain as the most common symptom, says the NIDCR. Others include jaw stiffness, difficulty opening your jaw, your jaw feeling “locked,” painful clicking or popping when opening or closing your mouth, and a change in the way your upper and lower teeth fit together.
If your doctor thinks you might have a problem with your temporomandibular joints, they’ll probably perform a physical exam and imaging tests to see what’s going on. Luckily, the pain is typically temporary or at least doesn’t get worse, according to the NIDCR. That’s why the first line of treatment for the most common TMJ disorders is pretty conservative—mostly lifestyle modifications that we’ll talk about below. But if those don’t work, your doctor might talk to you about further interventions, the Mayo Clinic says, such as medication, physical therapy, injections, or (in serious cases) surgery.
3. Something’s wrong with your bite.
When you have a “good” bite, all of your teeth are lined up with each other when you chew, Dr. Glickman explains. But with a “bad” bite, you may only have a few teeth line up, like the ones in the back. Bad bites can come in various forms, like an overbite (when your upper teeth overlap your lower teeth) or underbite (when your lower teeth overlap your upper teeth).
Having an uneven bite means your jaw can’t function as it should, which can create wear and tear and resultant pain in its joints and muscles, Dr. Glickman says. Doctors can usually fix this with braces, but in extreme cases, surgery may be necessary.
4. You’re dealing with an untreated cavity.
Plaque is a buildup of grody bacteria that come from food and drinks, and if you don’t clean it often enough, it can break down the enamel that coats your teeth. Boom, now you’ve got a cavity. But it’s when that cavity works its way into the dentin, the layer underneath the enamel, that you typically start to feel discomfort, Dr. Glickman says. If it continues down into the pulp of your tooth, it can cause pain to radiate around your jaw.
If your cavity is small, your dentist can fill it easily (hopefully without a long lecture, because sometimes cavities just happen, okay?!). But if it’s an advanced cavity, you may need a root canal, which involves going deeper to remove the diseased part of your tooth and fill that empty space.
5. You have an impacted wisdom tooth.
Wisdom teeth are the third set of molars people usually develop in their late teens and early 20s. Not everyone gets them since they don’t perform a function (you don’t need them to chew, luckily). But if you do get wisdom teeth, you’ll typically develop two on top and two on bottom. And if they don’t have enough room in your jaw to break through your gums properly, they can become trapped, or impacted. “This is common with third molars,” Gregory Ness, D.D.S., F.A.C.S., a professor of oral surgery at The Ohio State University, tells SELF, adding that it’s a prime suspect behind an achy jaw.
If your doctor thinks your jaw pain is due to impacted wisdom teeth, they’ll usually do a dental X-ray to see how they’re positioned in your mouth. If they’re definitely impacted, they’ll remove them surgically. Learn more about what you can expect before, during, and after that procedure here.
If you’re dealing with jaw pain, head to the doctor.
If you have a good relationship with your primary care doctor, they’re not a bad place to start, but dentists can usually pinpoint the problem and get you on the road to recovery pretty quickly, too. It’s also worth noting that when accompanied by other symptoms, jaw pain can be linked to serious health issues like chronic headaches caused by a TMJ disorder, and it can even be a sign of heart attack. Getting it checked out can either offer peace of mind or the chance to treat the underlying cause at the root of your pain.
In the meantime, here are some things you can do to ease the pain.
Again, going to the doctor will help you target your treatment, but that doesn’t mean you can’t tend to your aches and pains and start to feel better at home. The main course of action is applying heat or cold to your jaw when pain is flaring. The Mayo Clinic recommends this, via ice or a warm wet towel, for TMJ disorders in particular, but given that this is just symptom relief, you’re likely safe to try it even if you don’t know exactly what you’re dealing with. Popping an anti-inflammatory medicine like ibuprofen can help, too.
You might also want to try cutting back on habits that make you use your jaw muscles a lot, since that can exacerbate the tension and pain, says the Mayo Clinic. That means if you’re a chronic gum-chewer, it might be time to kick the habit. The same goes for eating big chunks of food or food that is especially tough to chew. In general, you might also want to tune into any tension-related habits you might have without realizing it, like clenching your jaw when you’re annoyed or chewing your pencil when you’re lost in thought.
Lastly, because stress can exacerbate jaw pain by making you tense and clench, it can’t hurt to stock up on some relaxation techniques, too. Especially considering how stressful the world is right now in general. Deep breathing and other grounding techniques can help relax your muscles in the moment. Other tools like meditation and cognitive behavioral techniques for anxiety might serve you well, too.