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Lockjaw Explained: Understanding the Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment Options

7 min read
by Dylan Hao |

If your jaw has been hurting and “locked up” for a while, you’re ready to get rid of this complication fast. It’s understandable. Locked jaws affect almost every part of our day, from talking and chewing to yawning and sneezing!

A tight and painful jaw could be something minor, like overworked muscles caused by too much talking, as in a “locked jaw.” Or it might mean that you have “lockjaw,” otherwise known as tetanus, a serious bacterial infection.

How do you know the difference, and is your condition serious? Here, we’ll explain what lockjaw is, what causes it, and your treatment options.

Understanding Lockjaw

Here’s the crucial difference between “lockjaw” and a “locked jaw.” Lockjaw is another way to refer to tetanus, a vaccine-preventable disease that isn’t contagious. It’s caused by bacteria in places like dust, soil, and manure. Tetanus can get into your body through any break in the skin but often happens because of a puncture wound caused by an object that had the contaminant on it.

On the other hand, locked jaw is a condition caused by dysfunction in your body that makes it difficult to use your jaw. 

How to Recognize the Symptoms

The two problems do have a few similar symptoms connecting them. Both will cause jaw cramping, headaches, and difficulty swallowing. You’ll also notice painful muscles and stiffness throughout the body. (Although, with locked jaw, this is localized to the upper neck, face, and shoulders.)

Tetanus takes this further, producing symptoms like:

  • Sudden muscle spasms that can occur anywhere but frequently in the stomach
  • Seizures, where the person may jerk uncontrollably or stare into space
  • Fevers, sweating, and changes in heart rate and blood pressure

If your symptoms don’t help you narrow down your problem, the next step is to recognize the cause of each condition.

Causes of Locked Jaw Versus Lockjaw

 A locked jaw, or jaw lock, is commonly caused by conditions like bruxism (teeth grinding and jaw clenching) and TMJ (temporomandibular joint) disorders. 

Bruxism happens when you involuntarily clench your jaw and grind your teeth, usually when sleeping. Over time, this causes your jaw muscles to become overworked, which leads to inflammation and pain in those areas and the muscles and tendons connected to them. 

TMJ disorders can stem from untreated bruxism, facial or jaw injuries, or genetic history.

Certain other infections in the mouth, such as an abscessed tooth, gum disease, sinusitis, tonsilitis, and mumps, can cause the symptoms of a locked jaw. 

Less common are jaw, head, and neck cancer or medical conditions like hypocalcemia (low calcium levels) and nerve or muscle diseases. Medications that affect the central nervous system (anti-nausea and antipsychotic medications) may result in the jaw locking up as well. 

But lockjaw is a category of its own. This disease, as explained by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only happens due to exposure to tetanus-causing bacteria known as Clostridium tetani.

If you’ve been in any of these situations that are known to be a cause of lockjaw in the past few days, you could have symptoms of tetanus:

  • Exposure to dirt, feces, or saliva near an opening in your body
  • Puncture wound that broke the skin
  • Burns of any kind
  • Recent surgical procedure
  • Insect bite
  • Injury caused by dead tissue
  • Crush injury in which a body part was squeezed by another object

Potential complications of lockjaw include tightening of the vocal cords, broken bones, pulmonary embolisms, difficulty breathing, and aspiration pneumonia. Approximately 1-2 in 10 tetanus cases are fatal.

If you think you have lockjaw, you should seek medical treatment immediately. 

However, the disease is relatively uncommon in the United States, with only 30 cases of tetanus reported each year. These are almost always connected with people who have not been vaccinated or haven’t had their 10-year boosters.

Diagnosing Lockjaw

If those symptoms of lockjaw sound familiar and you’ve potentially had exposure to bacteria, it’s best to seek a diagnosis from a medical professional. 

There are physical exams and tests that can determine for sure whether or not you have tetanus.

Physical Exams for Lockjaw Vs. Locked Jaw

lockjaw vs. locked jaw

Diagnosing tetanus isn’t as easy as having bloodwork done. There aren’t any lab tests that confirm this condition, so doctors rely on a combination of physical exams and other evaluations.

Patients with tetanus almost always have stiff muscles when they enter the examination room. The problem areas usually include the masseter muscles used for chewing and swallowing.

However, this depends on the type of tetanus. 

Doctors look for neck muscle stiffness, a locked jaw, trouble swallowing, muscle spasms, dry mouth, and sweating. In severe cases, the patient has difficulty breathing. Fever, elevated heart rate, and high blood pressure are common signs of lockjaw. 

Tetanus is always suspected if the person has had an injury that resulted in broken skin, particularly in contaminated environments.

Doctors use a “spatula test” to determine whether tetanus is the problem. This involves using a sterile instrument to touch the back wall of the throat. If the jaw contracts and the person tries to bite down on the object, they have tetanus. Otherwise, the natural response is for the gag reflex to try to push the instrument out of the mouth.

Exams for Bruxism and TMJ

If the physical exam and tests are negative, your doctor will check for symptoms of bruxism and temporomandibular joint disorders. 

Tests for bruxism include an examination for the physical signs of this condition, such as:

  • Tightness in the facial, neck, and jaw muscles
  • Cracks or chips in tooth enamel
  • Flattened teeth along the top edges

Subjective signs of bruxism include the patient’s reports of morning headaches, fatigue or trouble sleeping, and high stress levels.

If your symptoms are severe, the doctor may look further to see if your problem is a TMJ disorder. This involves observing:

  • Swelling or tightness in the area of the temporomandibular joint
  • Trouble closing and opening the mouth
  • Inflammation along the nodes of the jaw joint
  • Tenderness along the masticatory (chewing) and neck muscles

 The treatment recommended depends on what diagnosis you receive.

Treatment Options for Lockjaw

Lockjaw, as caused by infections like tetanus, can be a severe or life-threatening medical condition.

Treatment for lockjaw should be started within the first 24 hours of a potential infection. Although there is no cure, early antibiotics can effectively treat lockjaw by fighting the spread of the bacteria that caused the problem.

Tetanus infections require long-term treatment until the disease has run its course, typically in about two weeks. During that time, a team of specialists will help you dress and clean the wounds to prevent more bacteria from entering your body. 

Your doctor will also prescribe antitoxins to introduce antibodies into your system that fight toxins that haven’t reached the nerve tissue yet. Sedatives are also often part of the treatment since they reduce muscle spasms. 

Antibiotics fight the bacteria and keep them from spreading. Tetanus vaccination is another step used to help your immune system as it fights back against the infection.

Preventing Tetanus After a Wound

While tetanus often comes from a wound, not all wounds lead to tetanus. If you’ve been exposed to bacteria from a dirty item or an unsanitary environment, clean the area thoroughly with a saline solution or clean running water. 

Put an antibiotic cream or ointment over the damaged skin in a thin layer to prevent the growth of bacteria, then cover it with a fresh bandage. Change the dressing and add new antibiotic cream daily until a scab forms. 

Watch the area while the wound is healing. If you notice any tetanus symptoms, seek help as soon as possible.

Treatment Options for Locked Jaw

Locked jaw isn’t deadly, but it can become painful and dangerous if left untreated. Eventually, this condition leads to complications like dental infections, tooth damage, difficulty sleeping, and inflammation. Unlike lockjaw, there are many potential treatments for jaw lock.

Lifestyle Changes

headphones on a keyboard

If your symptoms are just beginning, you could correct the problem with some simple lifestyle changes.

Since bruxism is linked to stress, look for ways to improve your mental health. Listen to music, exercise and/or go for walks, journal, and eat a more nutritious diet. Avoid unhealthy habits, like excessive caffeine or alcohol and tobacco or drug use.

Try to get better sleep, too, although this can be a vicious cycle. Lack of sleep increases your stress hormones, but clenching and grinding cause restless slumber. 

An easy fix is a custom-fit night guard from JS Dental Lab. Night guards keep your upper and lower arches from connecting, which prevents grinding and clenching.

Bite Correction

For more serious cases of TMJ, your doctor may recommend a splint designed for bite correction. These can be a night guard, as mentioned above, or medically prescribed devices that move your jaw forward or backward for strategic periods. 

This jaw movement trains your mouth on to sit in the correct position or recaptures an out-of-place disc. These are not to be used for more than six weeks unless your doctor specifically tells you to, as it can damage the joint.

When bite correction doesn’t work, you may be referred to physical therapy to learn exercises on gently stretching and relaxing the TMJ and jaw area. Muscle relaxants for pain are often prescribed. In rare cases, surgery is necessary.

Preventing Locked Jaws

Preventing lockjaw caused by tetanus can only be done by avoiding the dangers and keeping up with your immunizations and vaccines, including the DTaP (tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis) and each 10-year tetanus booster shot.

But preventing a locked jaw is entirely within your control.

Remember that your jaw muscles need rest, too, and your TMJ is a very delicate, small part of your body that can cause massive problems if it isn’t properly cared for.

Take control of your oral health by maintaining oral hygiene and avoiding hard and sticky foods. Don’t chew hard objects, like ice, pen caps, and fingernails. You’ll avoid cavities and other dental problems and give your jaw and joints the chance to rest and recover from overuse.

In the meantime, use a night guard to prevent clenching and grinding overnight. You should notice a quick reduction in symptoms like morning headaches, jaw lock, and tightness in the muscles connected to your jaw.

If none of your lifestyle changes work, talk to your dentist or healthcare provider to see if your bruxing has a more serious underlying cause, like TMJ.


The two names may be similar and a few of the symptoms overlap, but lockjaw and locked jaw are night and day apart. If left untreated, both can be dangerous, though. 

Head to your doctor now if you think you may have lockjaw caused by tetanus. 

Visit JS Dental Lab for all other bruxing and locked jaw-related concerns!

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