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Why Does My Jaw Hurt When I Yawn or Chew?

8 min read
by Dylan Hao |

For most of your life, yawning and chewing have been basic activities of daily living. You don’t think about the motions, and there are no side effects.

That is, until recently.

Now, when you chew, yawn, or otherwise open your mouth, you notice discomfort in your jaw and possibly in your ear, as well. This pain is likely caused by a problem with the muscles and joints that connect your jaw to your skull, which could stem from several issues.

When you’re wondering why your jaw hurts when you yawn or chew, it’s time to dig into what’s going on inside the rest of your body.

Here, we’ll discuss how your jaw joint and muscles work. From there, you’ll understand what could be causing the pain you feel in that area, including those earaches when you use your upper and lower jaw.

How the Interconnected Parts of Your Jaw Work Together

Human bodies are designed to work a particular way through an interconnected network of systems. When these parts are in tandem, your whole body performs optimally.

Think about it: without your brain, your heart doesn’t beat. Without your heart beating, your blood doesn’t circulate to the rest of your organs, and so on.

The same type of interconnectedness applies to your digestive system, which begins in your mouth.

Jaw Movement and Its Effects

Your jaw, also called the mandible, is necessary to rip and tear the food you eat. The jaw and neck are connected by a network of muscles, ligaments, and tendons.

Jaw movement activates certain neck muscles. Those are connected to the skull, shoulders, and back. When your jaw is out of alignment for any reason, it causes muscle tension that you might feel as a headache, neck pain, or shoulder discomfort!

Your jawbone is connected to the skull via a hinge called the temporomandibular joint, better known as the TMJ. It lets the jaw move around and settles back into its spot. This delicate little piece of tissue is deceptively strong.

However, the TMJ can be overused, causing it to become inflamed or pulled out of position. 

If the TMJ doesn’t fit perfectly into its nesting place in your jaw, you’ll know it.

An out-of-position joint irritates the surfaces, causing pain where the jaw bones come together below the ear at the TMJ.

You may notice this when you yawn or chew as an annoying, audible clicking and popping sound, as physical discomfort, or both. 

TMJ pain can be a one-and-done issue or it can turn into TMJ dysfunction (TMJD), an ongoing problem that needs to be addressed.

When the jaw is out of position or overworked, those neck muscles become irritated, as well. It creates a domino effect in your body. Therefore, when the jaw bone is out of place, it impacts your entire body. That’s why your jaw hurts when you yawn and chew … and your back might feel the tug, too!

What Can Cause Overworked Jaws?

So now you know the importance of ensuring your jaw and all its interconnected parts are in place. The next question is how to avoid overworking them to keep them in shape. 

There are some obvious ways jaw muscles are overused, such as too much talking or chewing. If you habitually bite hard objects, like your nails, ice cubes, pen caps, etc., your jaws are working overtime (and your teeth aren’t too happy, either). Chewing gum, eating a lot of hard, sticky, or chewy foods, and using tobacco will work your jaw muscles to the point where it may hurt to yawn or chew.

But there are some not-so-well-known ways you might also be overworking your jaw. 

Poor Posture and Jaw Overwork

picture of a showing proper posture vs. poor posture

Until a few decades ago, etiquette schools were a standard part of life for many children whose parents wanted them to learn proper manners. Part of this training was on the importance of proper posture.

But posture is more than manners — it’s essential to your body's overall functioning.

When your head is in proper alignment, your weight is centered over your feet. This placement ensures all your other systems (including the digestive, circulatory, and nervous) are able to work correctly.

However, when your head is thrust forward from bad posture, it adds strain to your neck and jaw muscles. The rounded shoulders pull the shoulder blades away from each other, which puts even more pressure on the jaw. Both of these adjustments cause those muscles to work harder.

Long-term poor posture changes your bite by pushing the jaw forward. The results are jaw:

  • Pain
  • Tiredness
  • Popping and clicking
  • Discomfort when the mouth is opened

Those old-fashioned manners may not have had the science down yet, but they still had the idea right. Good posture is essential for a healthy life!

Bruxism

Another — quite common — cause of jaw overuse is a condition called bruxism. Better known as teeth grinding, this problem happens when you unconsciously clench your jaw and grind your teeth. It can occur when you’re awake, but sleep bruxism is the most prevalent and dangerous.

While experts haven’t figured out an exact reason for bruxing, they do agree that stress and anxiety, sleep disorders like sleep apnea, and genetics are some of the top causes. 

When you’re bruxing in your sleep, you don’t realize how much pressure you’re putting on your teeth. The constant clenching and grinding use your jaw muscles, and they don’t get a chance to rest from the day’s wear and tear. 

This overuse causes the jaw muscles to swell, pushing on the temporomandibular joint we discussed earlier. Over time, this leads to more severe issues like locked jaw, where your range of motion is so limited that you can barely open your mouth.

That connection explains why bruxism is linked to so many TMDs (TMJ disorders). The TMJ needs to be perfectly in place, and when it’s pushed on or displaced because of overused jaw muscles, it leads to ongoing pain when you open and close your mouth.

Other Less Common Causes of Overworked Jaws

Any damage to the jaw muscles or bones means the rest of the system has to work harder to cover the job those hurt parts would have typically done. So, when you have any kind of facial trauma, such as a dislocated jaw or surgery for a tooth extraction, the other jaw muscles will work harder while those areas are recovering.

This also happens when you have bone disorders that affect the facial area, like rheumatoid arthritis or osteoarthritis. Arthritis causes the joints between bones, including your jaw, to swell. When that happens, there’s limited movement of the TMJ, and when you do try to move it, you’ll likely feel pain.

While there are other potential reasons your jaw might hurt when you yawn or chew, chances are pretty good that it’s one of the most common causes we covered here.

That begs the question: what can you do to eliminate the pain, whether or not you know what’s causing it?

The Fixes for Painful Yawning and Chewing

If you’re reading this article, the odds are that you (or someone you care about) already have discomfort with yawning and chewing, and you want it to stop. 

But when the pain stems from an overworked jaw from conditions like bruxism, the solution isn’t usually instantaneous and magical. However, we do have some suggestions to help you get through the pain as you’re working on fixing the cause of the problem.

If you think your jaw pain is from a medical condition like sleep apnea, arthritis, or a long-term temporomandibular joint disorder, always talk to your doctor before trying any new remedies. It’s vital to ensure that what you’re considering won’t adversely affect your other treatment.

Your healthcare provider may suggest specific medications to take when you’re hurting that won’t counteract your other prescriptions or be harmful to your health conditions. Ibuprofen and anti-inflammatory muscle relaxants are typical pain relief meds for joint problems.

If the jaw issues are caused by dental problems, you’ll need to have those fixed before you can engage in any other therapy.

Conservative Treatment Options

You might also benefit from conservative treatment that teaches you how to adjust your body movements to reduce strain on the jaw muscles.

This could be as simple as relearning proper posture or going through physical therapy for jaw relaxation exercises and joint mobilization and stabilization. In more severe cases, this might be done with the assistance of a splint to push the jaw into its correct position.

Using a custom-made night guard from professionals at JS Dental Lab will also help reduce the symptoms. Night guards don’t solve the underlying problem causing the muscles to hurt, but they do limit the stress on the muscles. 

So, if you’re bruxing, for instance, the guard won’t stop your grinding, but it will prevent your teeth from touching, giving your muscles the much-needed rest time they need.

With the assistance of a custom-fit night guard and your doctor’s treatment plan, you can solve the reason behind your jaw problems and reduce the pain you feel when you open and close your mouth.

Learn more about our easy ordering process! 

How to Prevent More Jaw Pain in the Future

picture of sticky, chewy caramels

Maybe you’re not ready for medication and physical therapy just yet. That’s great! The earlier you catch any problem, the easier the fix usually is.

With your jaw pain issues, if you change a few daily habits, you can soothe your muscles enough to heal them and get rid of the problem completely.

Here are a few quick tips to help you adjust those jaw pain-causing habits:

  • Avoid over-chewing foods like steak, gum, caramels, etc. - These are okay occasionally, but they shouldn’t be part of your daily or weekly menu items. Stick with as many soft foods as possible, especially when you start to feel jaw soreness.
  • Don’t rest your chin on your hand with your elbow on a surface - This pushes your jaw up and out of alignment.
  • Take some time throughout the day for a quick body scan - Is your head centered over your spine? Shoulders square? Tongue and jaw in natural placement?
  • Bring relaxation techniques into your daily life - These could include journaling, taking nature walks, or listening to peaceful music. This small step reduces your stress levels, which soothes your tight muscles.
  • Get plenty of restful sleep - Use a custom-fit night guard to ensure grinding and clenching aren’t disturbing your rest.
  • Work on quitting those bad habits - Such as chewing on nails, ice, and pen caps. Drinking excessive alcohol or using tobacco or drugs can also stimulate your jaw muscles. 

These lifestyle changes might take time (we said they were simple, not easy), but the effects could last a lifetime! Unless you have trauma to the face or a medical condition, you may not have to feel that annoying jaw pain again!

Conclusion

Until you experience jaw pain, you don’t pay attention to how often you use those little muscles and joints. But once you have a jaw disorder, every yawn, chew, and swallow is an unwelcome experience!

Armed with some help from a professional night guard from JS Dental Lab and the knowledge in this guide, you can determine the cause of your jaw, neck, and back pain. Everything is connected.

When you follow the tips here, you might notice a quick reduction in facial pain, and the rest of your muscles could work better, too!

Start shopping our night guards today!

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