Why Does My Jaw Hurt?

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Do you ever have a nagging ache in your jaw up by your ear?  Or does pain radiate into your temples?  Maybe you just deal with general headaches and you’ve never really been able to figure out why.  Everyone deals with headaches at times.  Labeled as “brain pain of the highest magnitude,” 90% of people will experience a headache this year.  Nearly 50 million people will struggle through their weeks dealing with regular head pain. Physicians report this ailment as the top patient complaint, conducting millions of dollars of tests searching for answers.

The good news is that headaches rarely suggest a severe disease.  But if you’re dealing with frequent or severe headaches, you should discuss the situation with your medical doctor.  Sometimes there’s an apparent cause, but not always. And treatment should always target more than just uncomfortable symptoms.  Pain medications used long-term can result in side effects that may include kidney damage or stomach ulcers.  Minimizing their use is vital to your long-term wellness.

Headaches stem from numerous causes, although most of them fall into a few basic categories:

  1.  Tension Headaches:  Approximately 90% of headaches find their source in the muscles supporting the head and neck.
  2. Migraine Headaches:  These intense headaches generally occur on one side and can include nausea and sensitivity to light and noise.
  3.  Sinus Headaches: Sinus spaces in the head can become inflamed, irritated, and congested.  A head cold or severe allergies might be to blame.
  4.  Cluster Headaches:  These intense headaches are vascular and may arrive in short, intense episodes. Cluster headaches affect about 1% of the population and usually occur on just one side of the head or face.
  5. TMJ Headaches:  Temporomandibular Joint (TMJ) headaches often act like the other four types and are the most misunderstood of all.   Twenty classifications of Temporomandibular Disorders (TMD) are recognized, yet the medical community frequently overlooks them.  If you’re suffering from acute and chronic head or jaw pain, a thorough consideration of these conditions needs to be explored.

So That Could Be Why My Jaw Hurts?

The jaw is one of many complex systems in your body.  Jaw muscles generate a tremendous force that crush, grind, and tear food during the first step of digestion.  Some of these muscles are considered the most powerful ounce for ounce in the body.  You can probably bite down and force over 150 pounds per square inch on your teeth!

By each ear, the jaw joint (TMJ) joins the lower jaw to your skull with a cartilage pad and small ligaments. When you open, close, and chew, these joints move in multiple directions.  When everything functions as it should, pain isn’t part of the equation.

Sometimes the jaw joint experiences unusual stress, and that’s where problems begin to develop. If you ever wake up in the morning with a sore jaw or headache, odds are you’re jaw hasn’t been “sleeping.”  Over 30 million people in the U.S. suffer from bruxism, or night-time teeth grinding.   During the night, your brain can override normal bite force and generate 500% more force than possible during the day!  This abnormal activity strains muscles from the neck to the top of the temples. It also compresses the jaw joints and can cause inflammation in the joints.

To understand the strain on these muscles, clench your muscles. Put your fingers on the muscle in front of the jaw and run them down to the lower jaw?  Feel that bulge?  Now clench and unclench as you rub the temples. These long, thin muscle fibers reach near the top of your head.  When these major muscles, along with a bunch of small ones, undergo strain, pain begins.  This discomfort radiates into many areas of the head, and there’s a big difference between the source of pain and the site of pain.

To top it off, the jaw joints can become pain centers of their own.  A delicate cartilage disk cushions the lower jaw bone against the skull.  Unusual forces, arthritic changes, trauma, or an uneven bite can cause the joints to become imbalanced and irritated.   Maybe you’ve had a bad knee, sore hip, or tender knuckles.  The same problem can develop in the TMJ on the left, right, or both sides.

Research even suggests that migraine sufferers can experience more severe TMD problems, and TMD may even intensify migraines.  This double curse makes life especially miserable for chronic migraine patients.

So How Do I Stop Jaw Pain?

If you’re suffering from headaches or jaw pain, make sure you’ve had an evaluation with your dentist. A few quick tests and clinical clues often provide a clear diagnosis or suggest a path forward.  While it’s a subject for another day, the possibility of Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) shouldn’t be overlooked.

The American College of Chest Physicians published a study in 2009 that showed 1 in 4 OSA patients also grind their teeth.  OSA is a serious sleep disorder that’s responsible for a long list of health problems.  In fact, 90% of people who die in their sleep suffer from OSA!  Bruxism could be the first clue that you’re stressing your body and a sleep study is in order.

Sometimes it takes time to see your dentist or arrange a sleep study.  A simple, inexpensive nightguard appliance can serve as a temporary measure to protect your jaw, teeth, and relieve some of the jaw pain or headaches.  You may decide to ultimately invest in a custom nightguard, made just for you.  There’s also a chance that treating a sleep disorder may take care of your pain while protecting your general health.

Bottom Line

Jaw pain or headaches seriously affect the quality of your life. In some cases, they may indicate a serious health disorder like sleep apnea.  A game plan could include:

  1.  Make an appointment with your dentist to discuss your concerns, and consider a sleep study with a certified sleep center.
  2. Order a temporary nightguard immediately to generate short-term relief. Here’s a simple one that will work for most people.
  3. If you’re having pain, try applying ice to the joint and muscles on the side of your face in front of the ears.  Move the ice to your temples.  If you experience 50% or more relief, odds are you’re dealing with TMD pain.  But if you still have pain, there are many other types of TMD that could be causing discomfort and you should follow-up with your dentist.

About the Author Dr. Greg

Dr. Greg's experience in dentistry spans over 25 years serving patients of all ages. He's an advisor to www.emergencydentistsusa.com and a consultant to many professional dental projects.