What Causes Jaw Pain? Causes & Treatments

By Jennifer Nadel, MD
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
July 28, 2022

The jaw is one of the most complex joints in the body, and it works hard, doing important work for you every day.

It isn’t until your jaw starts to hurt that you notice how often you use your jaw.

Activities like talking and eating can become problematic when you experience jaw pain.

The jaw is complex, and there are several things that can cause jaw pain.

Teeth problems such as grinding or an infection can be a source of the pain, as well as problems with your nerves, blood vessels, or joints. 

Read on to learn about what can cause your jaw to hurt and what types of treatments are available for jaw pain. 

Types of Jaw Pain

There are several different types of jaw pain.

Some pains are sharp, radiating to other parts of the head or face, while others can cause a deep throbbing ache. 

Then are other symptoms that can accompany jaw pain, such as locking, popping, ringing in the ears, clicking, or jaw stiffness which can be just as troublesome. 

Some jaw pains go away on their own after a short time, while others become chronic conditions.

Jaw pain is most common in people between 35 and 44 years old. 

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Causes

Your jaw consists of your jaw bone, called the mandible, which holds your lower teeth.

It is connected to the temporal bone in your skull by a network of muscles and tendons.

This joint is one of the strongest joints in your body.

It is unique because it can move up and down, side to side, and in and out. 

For some people, jaw pain has no defined cause and often resolves on its own; for others, it has an underlying cause.

Read on to learn some of the known causes of jaw pain. 

Excessive teeth grinding and clenching

Teeth grinding and clenching is called bruxism in medical terms.

Some people clench or grind their teeth without realizing they are doing it.

It can happen during the day or at night. 

The cause of bruxism is not always clear, but most believe it is due to stress

Symptoms can include:

  • Sore jaw muscles
  • Ear aches
  • Headaches
  • Worn-down teeth
  • Teeth sensitivity to hot and cold

Injury

Some jaw pain can result from an injury such as a broken or dislocated jaw.

The most common causes of damage to the jaw are:

  • A blow to the face from assault
  • A work accident
  • Car accident
  • Sports injury
  • A fall
  • A dental procedure

Either one of these injuries requires immediate medical treatment to prevent airway complications. 

Infection

A tooth infection can cause tremendous jaw pain, which can also radiate to your face.

Infections can start because of a breakdown of the tooth, allowing decay to begin.

The infection can start in your tooth and then spread down to the root of the tooth and, if not treated, can spread to the bone.

There are many other complications of untreated tooth infection.

It’s always best to see a dentist when having dental problems so the condition doesn’t become more complicated. 

Nerve damage

Trigeminal neuralgia is a condition of the main nerve of the face which causes chronic pain. 

The pain can feel like sudden shock or burning pain.

The symptoms can come and go, and any type of vibration, or even talking, can trigger it. 

Trigeminal neuralgia usually affects people over the age of 50 and is thought to be caused by a compression or irritation of the trigeminal nerve.

Sometimes tumors or conditions like multiple sclerosis can cause it. 

Temporomandibular joint and muscular disorders (TMJ)

Temporomandibular joint and muscular disorders (TMJ) are conditions that affect the muscles and joints used for chewing.

They may involve problems associated with: 

  • The cartilage disk at the joint
  • The muscles of the jaw, neck, and face
  • Teeth
  • Ligaments, blood vessels, and nerves

There is no known cause in many cases, but in some cases, teeth grinding is linked to poor posture and stress. 

TMJ can cause symptoms such as:

  • Pain with chewing
  • Popping, clicking, or grating sound when opening and closing your mouth
  • Aching in the head, face, or ear
  • Locking of the jaw
  • Poor diet

Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis and psoriatic arthritis are the two most common arthritis to affect the jaw joint.

Arthritis is tenderness and swelling of a joint brought on by wear and tear or an autoimmune disorder. 

Symptoms include:

  • Pain
  • Trouble opening or closing your mouth
  • Locking jaw

Vascular Conditions

Sometimes, problems with the blood vessels can cause pain in the jaw.

Giant cell arteritis is a condition that causes inflammation of the blood vessels in your head, neck, and arms.

The inflammation causes narrowing of the arteries making the blood flow slower.

It usually affects people over the age of 50. 

Symptoms include:

Angina is when there is poor blood flow through the heart’s blood vessels.

Coronary artery disease is the most common cause of angina.

The most common symptoms include chest pain, tightness, heavy pressure, and a squeezing or crushing feeling.

Sometimes, these feelings spread to the arms (usually the left), back, jaw, shoulder, or neck.

Other Causes

Other causes of jaw pain include sinus problems, which can cause pressure behind the nose, eyes, and cheeks.

This pressure can sometimes cause jaw pain. 

Wisdom teeth typically come in between the ages of 17 and 25.

They can be a source of jaw pain while they push up through the gums. 

Symptoms

Symptoms of jaw pain will depend on what the underlying cause is but can include:

  • Sore jaw muscles
  • Ear aches
  • Headaches
  • Sharp, shocking pain
  • Burning pain
  • Dull constant ache
  • Locking jaw
  • Popping or clicking with movement
  • Difficulty chewing
  • Difficulty talking

Risk Factors

Risk factors for temporomandibular joint pain can include:

  • Stress
  • Injury to the head or face
  • Poor dental hygiene
  • Gum chewing
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Psoriatic arthritis
  • Being over the age of 50
  • Coronary artery disease

Diagnosis

If you are experiencing the symptoms of jaw pain as mentioned above, contact your medical provider.

To diagnose the problem, your provider will ask you questions about your symptoms, medical history, and dental history and examine your head, face, jaw, and neck.

Then, they may suggest a dental exam and refer you to some imaging tests.

Dental Exam

A dental exam checks the health of your teeth and gums.

It is performed by a dentist—the exam checks for tooth decay, gum disease, and other conditions. 

They may take x-rays of your mouth during the exam, and the dentist will check your bite alignment.

They will also clean your teeth and check your gums and inside of the mouth. 

X-rays

X-ray is an image taken of the inside of your body using radiation called electromagnetic rays.

They may x-ray your head and neck from different angles to diagnose your jaw pain. 

CT scan

Computed tomography (CT) scan is a method of imaging that uses x-ray to take cross-sectional pictures of the inside of your body.

Your medical provider may want this method to see what could be going on with the structures inside your head and neck. 

MRI

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) uses radio waves to see inside your body.

This type of imaging is great for seeing soft tissue.

The scan may take a while, and it can be loud but is painless. 

Doppler

A doppler study is for checking the blood vessels of your neck and head.

A small wand is rubbed over the skin and uses ultrasound to see if there are problems with the blood vessels which could be causing your jaw pain. 

Treatment

Treatment depends on what the underlying cause is and could include:

  • A mouth guard to prevent grinding
  • Learning techniques for reducing daily stress
  • Learning stretching exercises for your neck and side of your face
  • Massaging the muscles of your neck, shoulders, and face
  • Treating tooth decay or oral infections

TMJ Arthroscopy

TMJ Arthroscopy is a procedure during which a small incision is made in front of your ear so your surgeon can see your jaw joint.

During the procedure, the surgeon can diagnose what is causing your TMJ symptoms and correct the problem.

This surgery is done in a surgical center or hospital under general anesthesia and is typically one to two hours long. 

Prevention

Some things you can do to prevent jaw pain include:

  • Avoiding hard foods like nuts, candies, and steaks
  • Avoiding chewing gum
  • Decreasing stress that could cause teeth grinding or jaw clenching
  • Having a dental exam every six months
  • Eating a healthy balanced diet
  • Getting regular exercise
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When to See a Medical Professional

Typically jaw pain is not a condition that needs immediate treatment, but let your medical provider know if your symptoms become more frequent or severe.

Call your provider if you:

  • Have severe pain in your jaw
  • Your jaw could be broken or dislocated
  • You can’t open and close your jaw correctly

How K Health Can Help

Did you know you can get affordable primary care with the K Health app?

Download K to check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and, if needed, text with a healthcare provider in minutes. K Health’s AI-powered app is HIPAA compliant and based on 20 years of clinical data.

Frequently Asked Questions

What causes jaw pain?
Structural problems with the jaw joint, such as the muscles, tendons, ligaments, or bones, can cause pain. It could also be a problem with surrounding structures, such as dental problems or sinus issues.
How do I relieve jaw pain?
Gentle massage and stretching of the face, neck, and shoulder muscles can help relieve some pain. An ice pack or heating pad on the pain side can also help. Try to avoid foods or candies that are hard or dense to chew. If needed, take an over-the-counter medication like Tylenol or ibuprofen to treat pain.
What's the difference between jaw pain and toothache pain?
Some toothaches can cause jaw pain, but not all jaw pain is from a toothache. Some jaw pain is sharp, shocking, or popping pain. This type of pain is not typically from a toothache. Toothache pain is more constant and aching.
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Jennifer Nadel, MD

Dr. Jennifer Nadel is a board certified emergency medicine physician and received her medical degree from the George Washington University School of Medicine. She has worked in varied practice environments, including academic urban level-one trauma centers, community hospital emergency departments, skilled nursing facilities, telemedicine, EMS medical control, and flight medicine.

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