Table of Content
The Science Behind Jaw Spasms: Causes and Remedies
by Dylan Hao |
Spasming jaws are annoying at best — and downright debilitating at worst. They limit your mouth movement, keeping you from carrying on a normal conversation or enjoying your meal.
It’s one thing if it happens occasionally or you can pinpoint the cause, like an unexpected temperature drop making your teeth chatter. (Those random spasms can even be funny!)
But when it’s an ongoing issue, something under the surface may need to be corrected.
What’s causing your jaw spasms, and how can you get them to stop? We’ll explain the science behind these movements, how to know if you should see a doctor, and how to minimize their effects on your daily life.
Understanding Jaw Spasms
The official term for jaw spasms is “trismus.” This condition develops when your jaw muscles become too tight to open your mouth, resulting in uncontrollable muscle spasms.
Trismus isn’t used to describe the occasional spasms caused by temperature changes. But for those who have regular chattering, it might be the culprit.
Chattering teeth might sound like a setup for a joke, but it can be a serious issue.
Your teeth and jaw have jobs to do. Working with your tongue, they allow you to bite and then soften food to permit easier swallowing. The whole interconnected system also gives you the ability to speak and make other sounds.
But even the most basic movements can be painful when your bones and chewing muscles aren’t working right. This typically happens when your jaw muscles are overstressed.
Causes of Jaw Muscle Damage
Are you a chronic gum chewer? Maybe your favorite stress reliever is biting pens or chewing ice. Or, you have bruxism (jaw clenching and grinding).
Whatever the reason, when your jaw muscles are spasming, they have somehow become overworked.
Jaw muscle damage is usually caused by overwork (too much gum chewing or other strain) or anxiety that shows up as clenching and grinding. Less common reasons include certain types of arthritis (namely rheumatoid and osteoarthritis), jaw injuries, and connective tissue diseases.
The problem with this kind of muscle damage is that your jaw is essential to many vital functions. Let’s break down how the jaw works so you can see exactly why these spasms are no laughing matter.
Understanding the Properties of the Jaw
It might be hard to believe, but to chew or speak, there are four muscles that work together to get the job done:
- Medial pterygoid
- Lateral pterygoid
If any of them are damaged — possibly through an outside injury or internal swelling — trying to move your jaw will be painful.
In addition to these muscles, your jaw also uses a joint to move backward, forward, and side-to-side, called the temporomandibular joint (TMJ). It’s active whenever you talk, eat, yawn, laugh, sing, or move your mouth.
Although it has a heavy-duty job, the TMJ is a delicate little body part. Overuse from everyday wear and tear, grinding, injury, or arthritis can cause this jaw joint to become inflamed or damaged, and when that happens, any jaw movement is painful.
These issues can put stress on your jaw muscles, but that doesn’t always mean you’ll have spasms.
So why do some people end up with trismus while others develop different jaw disorders or are able to heal altogether? We’ll deep-dive into the difference between jaw muscle damage and spasms next.
Common Causes of Jaw Spasms
Imagine you’re sitting in your toasty warm car, driving to an event on a cold winter’s night. Your hands are warm enough that you don’t need gloves. You’ve even removed your coat and are considering turning the heat down!
Then you park, slide your jacket on, and get out of your car, stepping into the frigid air. The instant change from a warm environment to a cold one shocks your system.
Your body’s survival instinct kicks in to bring your internal temperature back to normal by contracting and shaking your muscles to produce heat. But the response of your jaw muscles when this happens causes your teeth to hit each other, which is chattering.
This type of jaw spasm should go away quickly without any long-lasting effects. However, when it’s ongoing, it falls into the “trismus” category.
Reasons You May Have Trismus
Trismus stems from underlying conditions that need to be corrected. Your healthcare provider or dentist can work with you to determine why that ongoing chattering teeth problem occurs.
Consider these less common reasons as a potential cause of your jaw spasms:
- A tooth infection or abscess
- Other types of damage to your teeth
- Injury to the face, neck, or head
- Taking medication with jaw spasms as a side effect
- Medical conditions, including fibromyalgia, calcium deficiency, and otitis externa (swimmer’s ear)
These are medical concerns to discuss with your healthcare provider. However, if there isn’t an underlying condition that needs treatment to correct it, the issue could be a jaw muscle disorder.
Jaw Muscle Disorders and Jaw Spasms
That little joint we discussed earlier is responsible for many big issues, all of which are lumped into a collection called temporomandibular joint disorders (better known as TMJ disorders or TMDs).
TMDs have various causes and symptoms but are primarily known for the pain they create with jaw movement. While anyone can have temporomandibular joint dysfunction, it tends to affect women twice as often as men, and young and middle-aged adults have the highest risk factors.
Symptoms of Jaw Spasms
If TMD is causing your jaw spasms, the effects can keep you from going about your daily tasks. Jaw spasms occur when something interferes with the nerves or muscles in your face.
In the case of TMDs, that joint disorder or muscle damage is the culprit, causing what is colloquially called “lockjaw” (frozen jaw movements) and spasms.
Jaw spasm symptoms result in muscle contractions that range from mild to severe, but you’ll likely notice one or more of the following ailments along with the chattering:
- Facial muscle pain (on either side of the face)
- Jaw pain
- Trouble opening your mouth all the way
- Difficulty speaking clearly
- Struggling to chew solid food
- Changes in your vision or ability to focus
- Earaches (possibly with hearing loss)
How long these symptoms continue depends on the severity of the muscle and joint damage. Sometimes, they go away independently, but in other cases, they need long-term care and medical or dentistry treatment.
Jaw spasms that go away within a few days aren’t anything to worry about. When it gets to the point that they interfere with your eating, talking, and other daily activities, it’s time to start asking questions.
And when you’ve tried at-home remedies and they don’t help, you should call your doctor. Often, all it takes is a simple treatment to rest your jaws, and the spasms go away.
Medical Treatment for Ongoing Jaw Spasms
Treatment options for trismus depend on its severity. You may be able to work them out yourself at home, need to head to the hospital, or have an in-between solution.
In the case of severe stiffness and locked jaw muscles associated with a stiff neck, painful spasms, and trouble swallowing, call 911 or go to the emergency room. This could be tetanus.
Otherwise, having an appointment with your doctor for symptoms of jaw pain and stiffness is sufficient. They may suggest treatments such as physical therapy to teach you jaw exercises and stretches, muscle relaxants, or Botox (botulinum toxin) injections.
If your symptoms are the result of severe bruxing, your medical provider will likely discuss the benefits of a custom-made night guard (like those we provide at JS Dental Lab) and stress-management techniques.
If the typical solutions for jaw spasms don’t work for you, there are other possible treatment options.
If they are caused by a medication, like certain antidepressants, your doctor may adjust your prescriptions.
But when your spasms result from a particular behavior, like chewing on pen caps or using tobacco, behavioral change training is a probable recommendation. This would be a strategic plan developed by the appropriate caregiver to help you adjust your habits.
Similarly, spasms due to jaw misalignment may benefit from posture therapy. This type of treatment uses appliances like splints to retrain your muscles, tongue, and jaw into a natural placement.
Patients with severe spasms often need medication and pain relievers to get through these episodes. If nothing else works, your doctor may suggest surgery.
Treating Jaw Spasms at Home
When your symptoms are mild, it’s possible to treat those spasms at home and handle them without medical or dental intervention. It helps to understand what’s causing the reaction so you can approach the solution with a plan.
When you know (or suspect) you have bruxism, at-home treatments should consist of stress management techniques and consistent use of a custom-fit night guard. These proactive behaviors will reduce the strain on your jaw muscles and should decrease the spasm episodes.
But if they happen anyway, getting through the pain is probably your biggest concern.
Getting Rid of the Pain of Jaw Spasms on Your Own
Light jaw stretching and exercises on your own time can help improve and maintain your range of motion. Ask your doctor for their recommendation for jaw stretches, or try these.
These gentle movements are as simple as opening your mouth wide and holding for five seconds, as though you’re yawning, then repeating the stretch for a total of 10 times. In other exercises, you move your jaw to one side and hold it in position for five seconds, then adjust the jaw to the other side, hold, and repeat.
Always follow the directions to each exercise carefully and stop movement if it feels uncomfortable. It’s possible to stretch your way out of a spasm by gently loosening up those muscles, but you don’t want to overwork them.
After stretching, apply hot compresses or an ice pack to the side of the face and leave on for 15-20 minutes. If the pain is more than you want to deal with, an NSAID (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug) found over the counter, such as Advil or Motrin, often helps.
While you’re attempting to fix your jaw spasms, modify your diet to include more liquids and soft foods and fewer chewy, sticky, and hard foods. This lets your jaw muscles relax and keeps you from feeling the extra discomfort that comes with overuse.
Jaw spasms don’t sound threatening, but they can come with substantial facial pain, mouth-opening limitations, and other side effects. Depending on how severe your symptoms are, you might be able to eliminate your chattering with the regular use of a JS Dental Lab night guard and some gentle stretches.
However, if the spasms get worse and don’t go away, it’s time to visit your doctor to find out what’s causing them so you can create a treatment plan specific to your needs.
If you have any questions about our night guards, contact us today!