Jaw pain can be caused by a wide variety of medical problems. It is usually categorized as primary pain, which is caused by problems with the jaw itself, or secondary pain, which is caused by problems with other parts of the body. Some types of pain can be prevented, and many can be treated, though getting treatment early is important. Some of the most common causes of jaw pain include trauma, temporomandibular joint disorders (TMDs), and sinus infections. Some people also experience pain in the jaw when they have a heart attack or migraine.
Trauma to the jaw is one of the most common primary causes of jaw pain. This often happens as a result of bruxism, which is the frequent grinding and unconscious clenching of the teeth. An abscess, a tumor, or gum infection can also cause pain, as can dental problems. For example, if a person's teeth are not aligned properly, or are irregularly spaced — called a malocclusion — he or she may have trouble biting or chewing properly, and this can lead to severe pain and facial deformities.
Bruxism and malocclusion can also lead to TMD, which is a chronic, long-term inflammation of the jaw. This causes severe, extended pain along with frequent headaches. Stress and anxiety also play a role in the development of this condition, since bruxism often increases when a person is stressed. Another serious cause of jaw pain is tetanus, which can cause the muscles that work the jaw to continuously contract; this is why this condition is also called lockjaw.
Primary jaw pain may also be caused by bone spurs and deep-seated wisdom teeth. Habits that put pressure on the jaw — nail biting, chewing gum, thumb-sucking, holding a phone between the shoulder and jaw, or sleeping on the back or side — can also cause pain over time. Joint diseases, such as arthritis, can also affect the jaw because they may be accompanied by bone degeneration. Additionally, many people feel pain after oral surgery or getting a tooth pulled.
One of the most serious secondary causes of jaw pain is a heart attack, which can cause pain that radiates from the jaw down the arm and shoulder. Trigeminal neuralgia, a facial nerve disorder, can also cause debilitating pain. Carotidynia, a type of migraine, can cause problems, particularly if the person grinds his or her teeth in reaction to the pain. Many people feel pressure or pain in the jaw when they get an ear or sinus infection because of the increased pressure in the ear and sinus cavities. Swollen glands in the neck can cause similar pain. Scurvy, which is caused by a lack of vitamin C, and phossy jaw, which is caused by exposure to white phosphorous, can also damage the jaw, though these conditions are rare in developed countries.
The prevention for jaw pain largely depends on the cause. Though there's no way to prevent some things, like arthritis or trigeminal neuralgia, some causes can be avoided. For instance, people can often prevent TMD by consciously relaxing the face and jaw, reducing stress, and avoiding things that put pressure on the jaw. If the TMD is caused by or made worse by malocclusion, realigning the teeth or jaw may also help. This is particularly effective when done in children who are not yet in pain.
Common sense precautions can also help prevent many jaw problems. For instance, good dental hygiene can help prevent gum infections and other dental problems that can cause pain. Sleeping on the back with a supportive pillow and using a headset rather than keeping a phone between the shoulders and ear can help avoid putting pressure on the jaw.
Jaw pain is usually initially treated with over-the-counter (OTC) painkillers, like acetaminophen or ibuprofen. For pain caused by bruxism or TMD, dentists may recommend people use splints that help prevent them from clenching their teeth while sleeping, or may recommend stress-reducing exercises. TMD can also be treated with intra-aural devices, which are small plastic inserts that are inserted into the ear, where they reduce pressure on the temporomandibular joint. For chronic or severe cases, dentists may choose to use a procedure called arthrocentesis, which involves injecting an anti-inflammatory solution into the joint, or surgery to reposition the jaw.