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5 Possible Jaw Pain Origins

9 min read
by JS Dental Lab |

Do you wake up most mornings with a headache or neck pain, and you’re not sure why? Is your jaw popping and cracking randomly? Have you been wondering, "why does my jaw hurt?"

Jaw pain and jaw problems can stem from a lot of different conditions. The only way to narrow down the cause is by pinpointing all the symptoms you have. 

But because this type of pain often accompanies headaches and neck pain, many people assume it’s spinal-related instead of dental. They avoid the dentist until the pain is undeniably coming from the jaw. By then, the pain can be excruciating.

We understand that you don’t want to head to the doctor for every ache and pain you feel. However, jaw pain is pretty specific. 

If you’re dealing with chronic, ongoing pain in that area, it’s likely one of these five jaw pain origin culprits.


Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) dysfunction is a mouthful of a term, but most people call it TMJ. You’ve probably heard of this condition since it’s pretty common. Many people with “jaw popping” have TMJ disorders.

To be exact, though, the disorder itself is called TMD in professional settings. 

TMD refers to the dysfunctional placement of the temporomandibular joint. With one on each side of your jaw, these joints connect your skull and jawbone like a hinge. 

These joints work with the muscles that control your jaw. When one or both are out of place, it causes pain in the muscles it's attached to and the joint itself, causing a temporomandibular disorder. 

Symptoms of TMJ/TMD

The most common symptom of TMJ is the aforementioned jaw popping, though not necessarily. 

You might have a TMJ issue if you have any of these other problems:

  • Pain in your jaw area, neck, shoulders, and/or face
  • Tenderness in the ear area when you move your jaw or clench your mouth
  • Difficulty opening your mouth wide
  • Noises in the jaw joint area when you’re chewing, talking, or opening your mouth
  • Problems chewing because your upper and lower teeth aren’t aligned 

    If you have a swollen jaw or your mouth is stuck in an open or locked position, it’s past time to visit the dentist.

    What Causes TMJ and How Can it Be Treated?

    Genetics, daily habits, or a combination of the two may be the source of your TMJ. 

    You could be a teeth grinder without realizing it; grinding your teeth in your sleep or when you’re stressed. This is a condition called bruxism.

    Or your pain may be a genetic issue, like arthritis. TMJ is also a common symptom when you have a jaw injury.

    The pain that goes along with it is usually temporary. It can go away with self-care or medical and dental management.

    To determine the proper treatment, you’ll need to see a dentist. They will perform a physical exam to check your oral health. They'll also take X-rays to make sure it’s TMJ and not sinus infections, gum disease, an abscess, or another condition.

    From there, the treatment will depend on what’s causing the symptoms. 

    If your TMD is from teeth grinding, for instance, you might be given a night guard to relieve some of the jaw pain. 

    Your dentist may refer you to a TMD/TMJ specialist for further analysis.

    Home remedies to help reduce the pain include:

    • Over-the-counter NSAID (Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs) pain medication, like ibuprofen
    • A cold compress placed on the face for ten minutes at a time, followed by a warm washcloth in the same area for five minutes
    • Avoiding hard, crunchy, or sticky foods, as well as anything that forces you to open your mouth wide, like a burger or a sub sandwich
    • Quit the chewing gum habit if you have one


    Yes, arthritis! 

    Even if you’re young and in good shape, the jaw pain you have could be arthritis-related.

    Often attributed to age, arthritis occurs when a joint becomes inflamed. Although it’s a generalized term, this condition affects more than 50 million adults, and there are hundreds of types of arthritis. 

    The jaw is a joint, so it is quite possible to develop inflammation in that area. No one is immune to this disease, affecting any gender, race, and age. 

    However, women and older adults are most likely to be afflicted by arthritis.

    Symptoms of Arthritis

    Since there are so many varieties of arthritis, the symptoms can vary. 

    Most types come with swelling and stiffness of the joint affected. You may also notice pain and a limited range of motion in the area. The symptoms may be severe and chronic or mild and random. 

    Arthritis does tend to worsen over time, though. It’s a progressive disease that usually results in eventual chronic pain, difficulty with basic activities of daily living, and trouble walking or stepping.

    While most types of arthritis only affect the joint, sometimes the damage can extend to organs like the heart, lungs, eyes, and skin.

    What Causes Arthritis? 

    With so many different types of arthritis, there are many ways it can occur in your body. 

    Generalized arthritis is a disease that happens because of heredity or stress on your joints. It can also occur as a result of certain viral infections or medical conditions such as autoimmune diseases.

    It usually afflicts the feet, hands, hips, lower back, and knees. But it can also happen anywhere there’s a joint, including the jaw.

    The inflammation that occurs with arthritis causes your body to secrete certain destructive substances. Gradually, these destroy the structure that holds the joint together.

    What are Treatment Options?

    Treatment for arthritis depends on the type you have, and your primary care doctor will probably refer you to a specialist. They will likely prescribe medications to reduce the pain and swelling. 

    You can also alleviate jaw arthritis symptoms with a night mouthguard.

    But in severe cases, you may need physical therapy or surgical intervention. The first place to start is a visit to your DDS to get to the root of the jaw pain you have. 

    If you suspect it’s arthritis, the earlier you handle the problem, the better you can control it.


    Osteoarthritis can cause jaw pain (x-rays)

    Another, albeit less common, cause of jaw pain is osteoarthritis. This is often confused with generalized arthritis, but the two are quite different.

    Soft, flexible tissue called cartilage connects every joint to bone. Visualize your jaw as an example. The hinge that opens and closes your jaw uses this connective tissue to attach them.

    The job of cartilage is to protect the joints from the shock and pressure that happens when you move them. Putting stress on your jaw could impact the skull, but the cartilage is there to soften the impact.

    Over time, cartilage can erode, which is what happens when you develop arthritis. Other things can cause erosion of the cartilage, like injury to the joint, infection in the area, and genetics.

    Symptoms of Osteoarthritis

    People who have osteoarthritis usually don’t realize it until the disease has already damaged their bodies. The symptoms typically start slowly and progress over time.

    Without radiology like an X-ray or MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging study), it can be challenging to diagnose osteoarthritis. 

    But doctors consider specific symptoms with risk factors to determine if your problem may be due to this condition. If so, they’ll refer you for further testing.

    Symptoms include:

    • Pain in the joints with movement
    • Stiffness in the joints after periods of inactivity
    • Reduced range of motion
    • Popping, cracking, or a feeling of “crunching” in the joint with movement
    • Visible or painful bone spurs around the joint
    • Swelling in the area

    These symptoms and other risk factors could mean that osteoarthritis is causing your jaw pain.

    Causes and Treatment of Osteoarthritis

    As with general arthritis, the older we are, the more likely we’ll develop osteoarthritis. Women are more at risk.

    People with obesity also tend to develop osteoarthritis. The extra weight increases stress to your weight-bearing joints. The fatty tissue also makes specific proteins that inflame the joints.

    Other risk factors include:

    • Previously having a joint injury, usually from sports or an accident
    • Repeated joint stress from a job, sport, or any repetitive motion
    • Birth malformations in the bone
    • Genetics
    • Metabolic diseases such as diabetes or extra iron (metachromatism)

    Treatment for osteoarthritis involves a referral to a specialist. 

    There, you may have an arthrocentesis performed to remove the fluid around the joint. This fluid can be analyzed to make sure there isn’t an infection and relieve pain and swelling.

    If that doesn’t help, an arthroscopy could be the next step. An arthroscopy is a surgical procedure that relies on a viewing tube to detect damage. The doctor can then repair the cartilage and ligaments through surgery.


    Injury to the face is never a good thing. But when the side of your jaw starts hurting after an impact, it could mean it’s broken or fractured. This is one of the most obvious, though less common, causes of jaw pain.

    A fractured lower jaw, or mandible, usually presents a lot of facial pain and swelling in the area. You’ll have reduced jaw movement and pain in the jaw muscles. 

    You might also notice that your teeth aren’t closing as they should or you can’t open your mouth wide like you used to be able to.

    Any time you have a significant injury to the head, you should seek medical help. There could be a concussion that you don’t notice immediately or a broken bone.

    However, if the impact was direct to the mouth or jaw, you could also need dental care. 

    Fractured and dislocated jaws may require surgery. If not, your dentist could recommend a mouth guard or other orthodontics to reduce the pain and help the jaw heal.

    Trigeminal Neuralgia

    Trigeminal neuralgia could be the cause of your jaw pain

    The jaw is attached to the trigeminal nerve, the largest nerve that connects to the brain. Cranial nerves come in pairs of 12, and, as you can imagine, they have essential jobs. 

    The trigeminal nerve transmits information to the areas of sensation around the jaw: the skin, sinus, and mucous membranes. 

    Anytime you want your jaw to move, the trigeminal nerves activate those muscles.

    Trigeminal neuralgia, then, is a condition in which these trigeminal nerves become inflamed. 

    This nerve inflammation causes any sensation, even the mildest touch, to stimulate severe pain. A simple act like brushing your teeth could trigger pain in the jaw area.

    This condition typically starts with mild symptoms of short bursts of pain. It can progress and deteriorate, though. If it does, those pains go from mild to excruciating. 

    Symptoms of Trigeminal Neuralgia

    Unlike arthritis and osteoarthritis, people with trigeminal neuralgia have obvious symptoms. The pain is nerve-related, and triggers don’t have to be anything significant to set off an episode.

    Common signs of this condition include:

    • Severe pain, similar to a shock to your jaw or brain
    • Pain for seemingly no reason after a mild touch to the face or teeth
    • Pain lasting anywhere from seconds to minutes
    • Attacks that range from days to months
    • Stabbing or shooting pain in the ear and earaches
    • Pain in the areas attached to the trigeminal nerves: jaw, teeth, cheek, gums, lips, eye, and forehead
    • Pain localized on one side of the face at a time

    Progressive, increasingly severe episodes characterize this condition.

    Causes of Trigeminal Neuralgia

    Common causes of trigeminal neuralgia are related to pressure on the nerve. 

    When blood vessels constrict and press on the area, the nerve sends pain signals to the brain and body. In many cases, this results from a tumor or multiple sclerosis (MS).

    Treatments for Trigeminal Neuralgia

    If you do have this condition as the reason for your jaw pain, you’ll need to work with a doctor to treat it. 

    Trigeminal neuralgia once meant you’d be in pain for the rest of your life. Today, though, it’s effectively treated with medications.

    More rigorous treatment plans, like injections to control the pain and surgery, are possible permanent fixes for severe cases.


    The cause of your jaw pain could be a dental problem fixed with a mouth guard, or it could be a problem that needs medical treatment. 

    Either way, don’t wait until the pain gets so severe you’re forced to head to the doctor for help. 

    If your jaw pain hasn’t gone away in a few days, call your dentist. They will be able to examine your mouth, ask you a few questions, and give you a possible diagnosis.

    In the meantime, you can self-treat with the suggestions in this article while you work on figuring out why your jaw hurts!

    You can also contact us at JS Dental Lab to discuss how our custom mouth guards may eliminate your jaw pain!

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