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Jaw joint problems

Expert reviewer, Bhav Kotecha, Dental Clinical Lead at Bupa
Next review due May 2024

Jaw joint problems affect how well your jaw joint works. They can make your jaw feel sore and they may cause headaches and ear pain too. They usually get better on their own.

An image showing the jaw joint

About jaw joint problems

Your jaw joint (temporomandibular joint, TMJ) connects your lower jaw (mandible) to your skull. It allows your mouth to open and close so you can speak and chew. Lots of muscles and ligaments help your jaw move up and down, from side to side, and backwards and forwards.

If you have a problem with your jaw joint or the muscles around it, this is usually called temporomandibular jaw disorder. Some doctors also call it myofascial pain disorder.

Up to seven in every 10 people in the UK have a problem with their jaw joint at some point in their lives. You can get problems with your jaw at any age, but it’s most likely to happen when you’re aged between 20 and 40.

Symptoms of jaw joint problems

If you have a problem with your jaw joint, you may:

  • have a dull aching pain around your jaw, cheek, ear, neck, shoulders or back
  • find it hard to move your jaw when you try to speak or chew
  • feel like your jaw is locked in position when you try to open your mouth
  • find it hard to open your mouth wide or close it easily
  • hear popping, grating or clicking sounds when you move your jaw
  • get headaches
  • get pain in your ears, tinnitus (sounds in your ears), and dizziness
  • notice your bite (when you put your teeth together) doesn’t feel as comfortable as usual

You may find that your jaw pain gets worse during the day or when you chew or talk. You may be able to manage these symptoms at home and they often get better on their own. But if you’re worried about the pain or your symptoms are getting worse, make an appointment with your dentist to find out if treatment could help.

Causes of jaw joint problems

Doctors don’t know exactly why some people are more likely than others to get jaw joint problems. But you may be more likely to get jaw joint problems if you:

  • have hurt your jaw
  • have had recent dental treatment (such as having your wisdom teeth removed)
  • have knocked or fallen on your chin
  • stretch your jaw too much when you’re yawning
  • clench your jaw or grind your teeth (bruxism)

Stress, depression and anxiety don’t directly cause jaw joint problems, but they may make jaw joint problems worse. This is because you may be more likely to grind your teeth. For example, during times of stress, you might grind your teeth at night or while you’re concentrating without realising .

But, lots of people with jaw joint problems don’t grind their teeth. And lots of people who do grind their teeth don’t have jaw joint problems.

Some people with jaw joint problems have other chronic health conditions such as:


These chronic conditions may affect how well your muscles and joints work or how your body reacts to pain. Other things that can affect your jaw joint include the following.

  • Disc displacement. This means the thin disc inside your jaw joint is in the wrong place. It can happen if you dislocate or hurt your jaw. When you move your jaw, you may hear noises such as clicking, grating or popping.
  • Arthritis. Osteoarthritis is more common in your knees, hips and hands. But it may affect your jaw joint. Rheumatoid arthritis can cause inflammation in any of your joints. For more information on this, see our FAQ: Can jaw joint problems be caused by arthritis? below.

Diagnosis of jaw joint problems

If your jaw hurts or doesn’t feel right, see your dentist. They’ll ask about your symptoms and if you have any health problems or long-term medical conditions. Your dentist will then check your head, neck, face and jaw.

They may:

  • press around your jaw to see if it’s tender
  • ask you to move your jaw in all directions to see how well you can move it
  • ask where and when your jaw feels sore as you move it
  • listen for clicking noises
  • look inside your mouth to see if you have any problems with your teeth or gums
  • ask if anything triggers your jaw problems (for example, chewing or yawning)
  • check if you grind your teeth or bite your nails because both of these can cause jaw problems

Your dentist can usually diagnose jaw joint problems just by examining your jaw. But sometimes they may want to check if part of your jaw joint is out of place or if you have any signs of arthritis. They may refer you to a specialist doctor such as an oral and maxillofacial surgeon. You may need to have some tests and scans to check your jaw joint, including:

Personal story - coping with jaw joint problems


Lauren talks to us about the problems she has had with her jaw.

Self-help

Jaw joint problems often get better on their own after a few months. But there are lots of things you can do to ease your symptoms.

  • Eat soft foods so you don’t have to chew food for too long.
  • Eat slowly and don’t take big bites of food.
  • Stop using your jaw as much as you can when it hurts.
  • Don’t yawn widely, chew gum, pens or pencils or bite your nails.
  • Try to stop any habits such as clenching your jaw or grinding your teeth.
  • Try to reduce stress if you can because stress can make jaw clenching or teeth grinding worse. Relaxation techniques such as mindfulness, and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) may help.
  • Make sure you’re getting plenty of sleep.
  • Massage the muscles around your jaw.
  • Try using an ice pack (or a bag of frozen peas wrapped in a tea towel) or heat pad on your jaw.
  • Ask your dentist, doctor or physiotherapist about jaw-opening exercises.

Treatment of jaw joint problems

If self-help measures aren’t easing your symptoms, your dentist or doctor may suggest you try some medicines or other treatments. The best treatment for you will depend on what’s causing your jaw joint problems and how bad they are.

A bite guard

If your jaw joint problem is caused by clenching your jaw or grinding your teeth, your dentist may suggest you wear a bite guard (bite splint), usually at night. This plastic cover fits over your upper or lower teeth and stops them coming into contact with each other. Hard bite guards may work better than soft ones. A bite guard may ease your jaw pain. But it may not help you to move your jaw more easily.

Physiotherapy

Physiotherapy may also help to ease your symptoms. Jaw-stretching exercises, massage and changing your posture may help to relax your jaw muscles. For more information, see our FAQ below: Can exercises help my jaw joint problems (TMJ)?

Medicines

Over-the-counter painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen may help to ease any pain. You can buy these from your local pharmacy. Your pharmacist can help you choose the right one for you. You may be able to take these as tablets. Or you may be able to put a gel containing an anti-inflammatory painkiller such as ibuprofen directly onto your jaw.

If you’re in a lot of pain, your dentist or doctor may prescribe some stronger medicines. These include the following.

  • Benzodiazepines. These relax your muscles and may help to reduce tightness and pain in your jaw. They may also ease anxiety. This may help if stress is causing you to grind or clench your teeth. However, these medicines can be addictive so your dentist or doctor will only prescribe them for up to two weeks.
  • Antidepressants. These can help to ease chronic pain, especially nerve pain. Your doctor or dentist will prescribe the lowest possible dose so you’re less likely to get side-effects.

Surgery

Most people don’t need surgery for jaw joint problems. But if other treatments haven’t worked for you, your dentist may refer you to a specialist. You may see an oral and maxillofacial surgeon or an ear, nose and throat specialist. Your specialist may suggest surgery if you’re in a lot of pain and your jaw joint is affecting your daily life.

Your surgeon may suggest:

  • trying to move your jaw joint into a different position under general anaesthesia
  • a corticosteroid injection into your jaw joint to help ease your pain
  • a botulinum toxin (Botox) injection into the muscles that control your jaw to help relax them
  • surgery to open your jaw joint so they can operate on the bones, cartilages and ligaments
  • using a needle or syringe to clean and take some of the fluid out of your jaw joint
  • replacing your jaw joint with an artificial (prosthetic) one

It’s important to discuss the pros and cons of surgery with your surgeon to see if it’s the right option for you.

Complementary therapies

Some people find acupuncture helps to ease their jaw joint pain. But it doesn’t work for everyone and may only last for a short time. Experts need to do more clinical trials to see how well acupuncture works for jaw pain before they can recommend it.

Frequently asked questions

  • You may find some exercises help to ease your pain and make your jaw easier to move. Doing these exercises in front of a mirror will help you check that you’re doing them properly. Speak to your doctor, dentist or physiotherapist who can show you the most suitable exercises for you in your circumstances.

  • Arthritis can sometimes cause jaw joint problems. But arthritis tends to affect older people whereas jaw joint problems usually affect people aged between 20 and 40. Different types of arthritis may affect your joint. These include:

    • osteoarthritis, which can cause wear and tear of your jaw joint
    • rheumatoid arthritis, which can cause pain and swelling (inflammation) in your jaw joint
    • secondary degenerative arthritis, which can be caused by an injury or may happen if you’ve had jaw joint pain for a long time

    Arthritis of your jaw joint can also be caused by:

    • an infection – your jaw joint may be red and swollen and feel stiff and sore when you move it
    • an injury to your jaw

    Your dentist may refer you for an X-ray to see if you have arthritis in your jaw.



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Related information


  • Discover other helpful health information websites.

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    • Temporomandibular disorders (TMDs). NICE Clinical Knowledge Summaries. cks.nice.org.uk, last revised December 2016
    • Temporomandibular joint syndrome. emedicine.medscape.com, updated June 2020
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    • Conville RM, Moriarty F, Atkins S. The management of temporomandibular disorders: a headache in general practice. Br J Gen Pract 2019; 69(687):523–24. doi: 10.3399/bjgp19X705977
    • Schiffman E, Ohrbach R, Truelove E, et al. Diagnostic criteria for temporomandibular disorders (DC/TMD) for clinical and research applications: recommendations of the International RDC/TMD Consortium Network and Orofacial Pain Special Interest Group. J Oral Facial Pain Headache, 2014; 28(1):6–27. doi: 10.11607/jop.1151
    • Jaw joint problems. British Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons. www.baoms.org.uk, accessed January 2021
    • Analgesics. NICE British National Formulary. bnf.nice.org.uk, last updated January 2021
    • Neuropathic pain. NICE Clinical Knowledge Summaries. cks.nice.org.uk, last revised February 2020
    • Ear, nose, and throat. Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) dysfunction. Oxford Handbook of General Practice. 5th ed. Oxford Medicine Online. oxfordmedicine.com, published online June 2020
    • Bruxism. BMJ Best Practice. bestpractice.bmj.com, last reviewed April 2021
    • Internal temporomandibular joint (TMJ) derangement. MSD Manuals. msdmanuals.com, last full review/revision June 2020
    • Arthritis of the temporomandibular joint (TMJ). MSD Manuals. msdmanuals.com, last full review/revision June 2020
    • Osteoarthritis. NICE Clinical Knowledge Summaries. cks.nice.org.uk, last revised June 2018
    • Rheumatoid arthritis. NICE Clinical Knowledge Summaries. cks.nice.org.uk, last revised April 2020
  • Reviewed by Victoria Goldman, Freelance Health Editor and Michelle Harrison, Lead Editor, Bupa Health Content Team, May 2021
    Expert reviewer, Bhav Kotecha , Dental Clinical Lead at Bupa
    Next review due May 2024

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