Laughing, yawning, chewing, talking, and smiling are facial movements you make daily with minimal thought. But, if you have a tight or sore jaw, these simple activities can cause discomfort and a lot of pain!
But what causes the stress in the jaw? Tightness in the jaw can result from several reasons, including bruxism, TMJ disorders, stress, excessive chewing, and more.
And regardless of the cause, a tight jaw leads to discomfort and pain in the jaw, nose, ears, teeth, head, neck, and face. This post will discuss the tightness in the jaw, including its symptoms, what causes it, and how you can relieve the stress in the jaw.
Feel free to jump ahead!
What are the symptoms of a locked jaw?
Also known as trismus, a tight jaw or jaw tension, a locked jaw is a disorder of the jaw muscles that causes pain and discomfort in different body parts. The pain’s intensity can be described as throbbing, achy, severe, or tender.
The pain and discomfort may worsen while laughing, yawning, or chewing. With a tight jaw, you’re likely to experience facial pain and discomfort on:
- Your jaw
- One or both sides of your face
You may also have a limited range of motion when opening your mouth, hear clicking sounds, and experience locking the jaw joint. Read on to learn about what causes stress in the joint and how you can relieve the tightness.
What causes a tight jaw?
A tight jaw can result from several factors, including teeth grinding, anxiety, tetanus, excessive chewing, etc. Understanding the cause of a tight jaw is key to relieving the pain and discomfort and preventing future reoccurrence.
Here is a breakdown of the common causes of jaw tension:
Cause #1: Stress and anxiety
Stress and anxiety are the main causes of jaw clenching and muscle tension. When stressed, you’re more likely to unknowingly grind your teeth or clench your jaw (bruxism).
This can tighten your facial muscles with time or lead to more severe dental issues, including wear, cracks, and tooth loss. Here are the common symptoms of stress:
- Tension in the neck and shoulder muscles
- Clenching your fist
You can work towards reducing your stress levels by eating healthy, practicing self-care, getting more physical activities, reducing caffeine intake, and more.
Cause #2: Temporomandibular joint disorder
TMD or TMJ is a temporomandibular joint dysfunction that leads to pain and discomfort in the jaw joint and the surrounding muscles. The joint is responsible for the motion needed to yawn, speak, chew food, etc.
Here are a few TMJ symptoms:
- Difficulty opening your mouth or chewing
- Tenderness or pain in the face, jaw, neck, or ear
- Jaw popping
You may experience the symptoms of TMD if you have physical injuries, inflammation from infections, and clenching or grinding the teeth.
Cause #3: Tetanus
Tetanus (lockjaw) is a potentially fatal bacterial infection characterized by trouble swallowing, abdominal stiffness, and painful muscle contractions in the neck and jaw. You can get a tetanus vaccine to help prevent this infection.
Cause #4: Medications
Certain medications may lead to jaw pain and discomfort. These includes
- Antipsychotic drugs
- Metoclopramide (Reglan)
Talk to your doctor if you suspect that the medications you’re using may be responsible for the jaw tension.
Cause #5: Excessive chewing
Yes, excessive chewing can also lead to jaw pain. Like most body joints or muscles, excessive use leads to pain and discomfort; the jaw is no different and will often become stiff with excessive use.
Cause #6: Rheumatoid arthritis (RA)
This autoimmune inflammatory disorder affects joints and muscles in your body – including the temporomandibular joint. RA makes it painful or difficult for you to chew and open your mouth and may also damage the surrounding tissues.
Recent research shows that about 80% of persons with RA have TMD, the leading cause of a tight jaw.
Here are the main Rheumatoid Arthritis symptoms:
- Jaw tightness
- Unintended weight loss
- TMJ pain
- Joint pain, stiffness, and inflammation
- Bumps under the skin of the joint
Cause #7: Teeth grinding
Teeth clenching/grinding (bruxism) is another cause of a tight jaw. You may clench or grind your teeth for various reasons, including anxiety, stress, anger, depression, frustrations, sleep disorders, etc.
Bruxism is also related to heavy consumption of caffeine and alcohol. The condition is generally found among individuals that snore or suffer from sleep apnea.
Bruxism symptoms may include:
- Headaches in the morning
- Increased tooth sensitivity
- Jaw pain
- Flattened back teeth
- Sore facial muscles
Cause #8: Osteoarthritis
Although not so common, osteoarthritis (OA) can lead to jaw pain. OA is a chronic condition mainly affecting joints – mostly among the elderly (65 years or older). The condition typically affects the knees, hands, and hips but can also affect your jaws.
How can I relieve stress in the jaw?
If you’ve had jaw tension, you can agree that it’s one of the most uncomfortable things ever. It limits your ability to smile, chew, yawn, talk, and laugh.
The good news is you can deal with it using a few home remedies, as discussed below:
Solution #1: Exercise your jaw
Targeted jaw stretches and relaxation exercises may help you relieve tight jaw muscles. Here are three of the best of these facial exercises:
Manual jaw-opening exercise
Make several mouth-opening and closing movements several times as a warm-up. Then, get hold of your front four teeth and move your jaw slowly until you feel pain or discomfort; repeat the exercise for about 30 seconds.
Repeat this exercise, starting at a stretch of three times and increasing it gradually until it gets to 12 repetitions.
Jaw joint stretch
The jaw joint stretch will help you exercise your jaw and neck muscles. To get started, place the tip of your tongue on your mouth’s roof, directly behind your front teeth.
Then, apply gentle pressure using your tongue, open your mouth as much as possible, and close it shut slowly. Repeat this process about ten times, stopping when you feel discomfort or pain.
Also, you can stretch your jaw joint by pressing your tongue against the roof of your mouth and then exercise the joint. Place one finger on the TMJ and the another on the chin to help you exercise and stretch your jaw as far as possible.
Have your lower teeth move away from the upper front teeth as much as possible. This helps stretch and relieve muscle tightness of the neck and jaw.
The smile stretch exercise eliminates stress in the neck, facial muscles, and upper and lower jaw. To practice it, stand in front of a mirror and produce the widest smile possible without feeling pain or tightness.
While still smiling, open your mouth a wider 2 inches, inhale deeply through your mouth, and then exhale while letting go of the smile. Repeat this process up to ten times, only stopping when it’s painful.
Note: TMJ pain relief exercises are
Solution #2: Massage
A massage on your jaw can help boost the blood flow and minimize muscle tightness. To massage your jaws, open your mouth and rub the muscles next to your ears (where your temporomandibular joints are found) in a circular motion.
Repeat this exercise several times per day, including before retiring to bed. You may also visit a massage therapist to help relieve the pain faster.
Solution #3: Consider changing your diet
Yes, your diet could be the culprit for a tight jaw. Hard foods and chewy foods, like hard candy and chewing gum, often lead to excessive chewing, which may cause jaw tension.
In such an instance, eating softer foods can help minimize muscle soreness and jaw tightness. Yogurt, tofu, smoothies, porridge, avocado, etc., are some of the recommended foods that put less pressure on your jaws.
Note: Eating healthy meals is also among the main stress reduction methods. Reducing stress levels also translates to better oral health and reduced cases of joint tightness.
Solution #4: Apply heat or cooling packs
Apply moist heat or cold – whichever you like – to the sore muscles and joints for about 5 to 10 minutes. Repeating this process three to four times daily can help minimize muscle or joint pain and relax your muscles.
If you prefer heat, microwave a wet towel for about a minute or until it turns warm. Then, wrap it around a hot water bottle to maintain its warmth for longer.
If you prefer cold, wrap ice packs in a cloth and place them on the affected jaw area until you feel some numbness.
Solution #5: Use mouth guards
Wearing a mouth guard can benefit you, especially if your jaw tightness results from grinding or clenching your teeth in your sleep. If that’s the case, your doctor should recommend a bite splint or night guard – a type of mouth guard.
However, mouth guards can also be used to help individuals with temporomandibular disorder.
Visit your practitioner or dentist to have the appropriate mouth guard prescribed. They will also advice the amount of time to wear the guards.
When do I see a doctor?
You are advised to seek medical attention if you are experiencing jaw discomfort and pain that doesn’t disappear on its own. The oral medicine specialist or dentist can recommend the appropriate treatment, based on you cause of your condition, including:
- Botox injections
- Medications, such as pain relievers
- Physical therapy
The bottom line
It can happen to anyone – you wake one morning with headaches, sore jaw, and muscle pain. If you experience such, you may have a tight jaw that causes discomfort and pain in your ears, head, mouth, neck, and face.
This post explains everything about this condition, including what causes it, how to manage it, and prevent it from reoccurring. Good luck as you use it to lead a healthy life!