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4 Things to Know About Jaw Pain

4 Things to Know About Jaw Pain

by Molly Runquist, DPT, COMT, Emory Competent, AIB-VRC1 Comment

Are you having pain or clicking in your jaw while yawning or laughing? Does it cause you prolonged pain to chew delicious foods such as a steak, apple, or bagel? Did your dentist offer you a retainer or splint because you grind, clench or have worn your teeth? Answering yes to these questions may indicate that you have a dysfunction going on in or around your temporomandibular joint (TMJ) or more simply, issues related to opening and closing your jaw.

The TMJ is located just in front of your ear. Place your fingers there and begin opening and closing your mouth to feel that joint move. Read below for four things you may not know about temporomandibular joint dysfunction (TMD) and pain.

1. Symptoms are not always straightforward.

First, the symptoms may not present as easily or specifically as explained above. Our nervous system is the only system in our body that is connected throughout, non-stop, from head to toe – nearly 4 miles of a network!1 In addition to helping our muscles move and sense pain and pressure, our communication network can sometimes cause referred pain. Referred pain is when you feel pain nearby the area that is the cause of the pain. In TMD, you can have facial pain in your forehead, cheek or down along your jaw. It may even present as pain in the ear. Oftentimes it can also present with a headache along these facial areas as well as into the side of your head. Symptoms are typically one sided, but can occasionally occur on both sides.

2. There is often more to it than just the jaw.

Many of the problems in and around this joint can resolve without intervention. However, approximately 5 percent of people require treatment, and this is often because there is more going on than just what is inside the TMJ.2 The TMJ has a disc that moves within the joint space as the mouth opens and closes. There can be difficulties with how this occurs that may cause your jaw to catch or lock up- identifying issues here can be done by your dentist and could include imaging to see how your jaw moves. The upper parts of your neck or cervical spine can also contribute to worsening TMJ or ongoing symptoms. Not only do these segments share nerve pathways with your TMJ, but can also contribute to muscle tightness between the neck and jaw that can prolong your symptoms.

3. Treatment isn’t restricted just to the inside of your mouth.

Many people don’t appreciate others’ hands in their mouths. There are multiple ways to treat TMD, but treatment should always be determined based on the individual and be comprehensive in its approach.  Treatment may involve manual, or hands-on treatment, or utilizing a device that can help the joint.   However, much of what is seen in conservative treatment is more related to muscular issues in and around the joint as well as issues in the parts of the neck. Findings in these areas can allow for manual treatment to the upper aspect of the neck to improve muscle tightness, postural awareness, and even help communicate with your nervous system to turn down your pain. If your presentation is more related to headaches or facial pain, this is definitely an appropriate area to evaluate and treat by a physical therapist.2 Other treatment options can include addressing your posture (the foundation in which you balance your head and neck in space), as well as how you move or utilizing a laser and target system to reeducate how your nervous system contributes to retraining little fibers in your neck and spine (proprioceptors) that help balance your head and neck in space.

4. You don’t have to live with this or stop eating your favorite foods.

There are ways to change your day to day life today that may help if you are experiencing similar symptoms to TMD. Taking a rest from chewy foods (to allow the system to calm temporarily), or a more permanent option of stopping a habit of gum chewing, can decrease strain on the joint. Consistently seeing your dentist is also important for the care of your teeth and jaw.

Contact Athletico for a free assessment to see if there are musculoskeletal issues that physical therapy can assist with in order to get you back to your goals and lifestyle.

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The Athletico blog is an educational resource written by Athletico employees. Athletico bloggers are licensed professionals who abide by the code of ethics outlined by their respective professional associations. The content published in blog posts represents the opinion of the individual author based on their expertise and experience. The content provided in this blog is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice and should not be relied on for making personal health decisions.

1. International Spine and Pain Institute: Pain Neuroscience Education Course, personal communication, June 2018.
2. Graff-Radford, S.B. (2012). Facial Pain, Cervical Pain, and Headache. CONTINUUM: Lifelong Learning in Neurology, 18, 869-882. Doi: 10.1212/01.con.0000418648.54902.42

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Molly is a physical therapist passionate about educating others in physical therapy. Her favorite Vestibular Rehabilitation topics involve helping diagnose, treat, and improve the quality of life of those with dizziness. She has undergone extensive training from several groups specializing in treating vestibular conditions. She also develops courses within Athletico to improve other clinicians' and new graduates' ability to efficiently and effectively assist this population. Molly is excited to share her trials, success, and tricks with people looking to learn more about what physical therapy offers to improve their lives and make everybody better with Athletico.

Read more health resources related to these topics:

TMDjaw painTemporomandibular jointTemporomandibular joint dysfunctionTMJ

1 Comment

  1. Taylor Hansen

    It’s interesting that 5% of people require treatment for jaw problems. Over the last week, I have noticed I am waking up more often with jaw pain and I’m wondering if it has to do with the stress I’ve been dealing with. I’ll be sure to follow up with a professional to see what can be done about my recent jaw pain.

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