Jaw pain can be confusing and disruptive, affecting your ability to eat, speak, and laugh. Because there are so many different problems that can cause jaw pain, it can be tough to diagnose.
This article will cover some of the most common causes of jaw pain, not including dental infections. The reason we are excluding dental infections is that those are relatively easy to diagnose. In this blog, we will focus on the potential causes of jaw pain after your dentist has ruled out dental infections.
The most common cause of jaw pain is a condition known as bruxism. Bruxism encompasses both clenching and grinding of the upper and lower teeth during sleep or awake. It involves excessive forces between the jaws and heavy contraction of the jaw muscles.
The largest jaw muscles involved in biting teeth together are the masseters. These large muscles make up the back half of the cheeks, from the ear forward to about the molar area, and from the cheekbones down to the bottom edge of the lower jaw. Most people can feel their masseter muscles contracting by placing their hands on the cheeks and squeezing the upper and lower teeth together tightly.
These are skeletal muscles, and just like any other skeletal muscles in the body, when we overwork them, they can become sore and painful. People who clench or grind their teeth heavily can develop soreness, tension or pain in these muscles. This type of jaw pain is often worse in the mornings and accompanied by headaches in the temple region.
The good news is that this pain is easy to solve by wearing a professional mouthguard during sleep or other times of bruxism (driving, exercising, working, etc…).
Jaw Joint Problems (TMJ/TMD)
Perhaps the most complicated cause of jaw pain is a problem in the jaw joint(s). The TemporoMandibular Joints (or TMJs) are the most complex ball-in-socket joints in the body. When they have problems, we call it TemporoMandibular Dysfunction or Disorder (TMD).
TMD can include problems with slipped discs, pinched nerves, torn ligaments or degenerative arthritis. Because there are so many moving parts in the TMJs, there are many potential sites for dysfunction. TMD is often quite difficult to treat.
Patients whose jaw pain prevents them from enjoying a normal quality of life may require invasive treatments like TMJ surgery. Many people can achieve relief from this type of jaw pain by wearing customized bite guards to reposition the joint, reducing compression forces and relaxing the muscles. Others may need orthodontic treatment to correct bite problems and align the jaws into a better relationship.
Salivary Gland Problems
A less common cause of jaw pain is salivary gland problems. The largest salivary gland, the parotid, is located near the jaw joints and muscles. These glands can develop stones, just like your kidneys and gallbladders. A salivary stone can cause severe pain if it blocks a duct (the tiny pores that release saliva into the mouth). A blocked salivary duct creates a sharp pain when you begin eating. The saliva builds up under the blocked duct, rapidly increasing in pressure.
Many salivary stones will pass unnoticed. Others require surgical removal. Rarely, these salivary glands can also develop cancerous growths.
Cysts and Tumors
Even rarer are cysts and tumors in the jaws. Whether benign or malignant, these growths can cause pain by putting pressure on surrounding tissues. Growths in the jaws can develop in the jaw bones, the ligaments surrounding teeth, or the soft tissues inside the mouth. Any growth should be evaluated by your dentist or a dental specialist as soon as you notice it!
Many cysts or tumors in the jaws show up as incidental findings during a routine dental evaluation (meaning the patient was unaware and asymptomatic). That’s why jaw pain from a cyst or tumor is relatively rare.
More Questions about Jaw Pain?
Call Rockland Dental Specialists to schedule a consultation with one of our esteemed doctors. We can answer your questions and assess your own situation so that you receive customized treatment for your jaw pain.