Jaw Lock and TMJ Pain
by Dr. Scott Bolding
When you’re eating an apple or a piece of pizza, you might not think too much about your jaw joint. You just take a bite and enjoy. The truth is being able to open and close your mouth is something many of us take for granted.
But jaw lock takes that ability away from you. And even if it’s just for a moment, it can be stressful.
Jaw lock can happen once and then go away after a while. However, if it persists you may be dealing with a TMJ disorder. TMJ disorders happen when your jaw joint is damaged or misaligned.
As a symptom of TMJ disorders, jaw lock is usually treated as we treat the underlying issue in the jaw joint. That treatment will depend on what is causing TMJ disorder.
However, in the moment when your jaw locks up there are some things you can do at home to help get things moving again. This will help you keep your mouth moving until your appointment.
In this post, we’ll take some time to help you understand:
- What jaw lock is
- Why it happens
- What you can do to treat it.
Our goal is to help you determine whether you should be concerned about your jaw lock. Once you figure that out, you can make a better decision on how to move forward with treatment.
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What is Jaw Lock?
Jaw lock happens when you have a hard time opening and closing your mouth. This is usually due to problems in the jaw joint (otherwise known as the TMJ). You will feel like your jaw is stuck or getting caught on something.
It can happen in a moment when you go to bite some food or yawn. Your jaw will be stiff and you may notice a clicking or popping sound coming from your joint.
Jaw Lock is NOT Lockjaw
Jaw lock is often referred to as lockjaw. However, they’re not the same thing. Lockjaw is when the muscles around your jaw spasm.
With lockjaw, you’ll also have a hard time moving your mouth, but the issue is with the muscles, not the joint. While jaw lock is related to TMJ disorders, lockjaw is caused by an infection in your muscles. Lockjaw is actually a serious condition that can be fatal if not treated. And while jaw lock can be painful and point to an underlying issue with the TMJ, it’s not as dangerous.
It’s important to understand this difference so you don’t tell your doctor about the wrong problem.
Why Does Jaw Lock Happen?
It’s also important to understand why jaw lock happens and why it’s a common symptom of TMJ disorders. In order to understand how jaw lock happens we need to understand the anatomy of the jaw joint.
One of the most essential parts of the jaw joint is the synovial disc. This disc provides nutrition and lubrication to the joint. It makes it possible for the joint to move smoothly.
If this disc is damaged or moved out of position it can cause the jaw joint to stop functioning properly. Problems with the disc often lead to jaw lock.
Sometimes the disc becomes misaligned due to an injury to the face. Other times overuse can cause the disc to break down. If you eat too much hard or chewy food, for example, you can cause damage to the synovial disc. Over time, this damage can lead to jaw lock.
What to do About Jaw Lock?
If you’ve experienced jaw lock you probably know how stressful it can be. You go to take a bite of your favorite food and all of a sudden your mouth feels stuck. You may panic, not knowing what to do or if you need to be concerned.
A lot of people will experience jaw lock once or twice, but it usually doesn’t happen again. However, if it keeps happening, that means something more serious is going on in your jaw joint. Chronic jaw lock will require treatment from a TMJ specialist.
In the moment when your jaw locks up there are some things you can do to release it.
The best thing you can do is try to move your jaw around to loosen things up. Try putting your jaw between your hands, then move it back and forth and side to side. If this doesn’t work, DO NOT try to force it. Forcing things back into place could cause more damage. You can also try heat/ice therapy to help things relax.
When to see a Doctor
If your jaw stays locked for a few days or it keeps getting locked up you should find someone who is knowledgeable about the jaw joint. A TMJ specialist will be able to diagnose the issue. Diagnosing the problem will help you get the treatment you need.
As much as we want to help you relieve your jaw lock right away, we also want to make sure we treat the underlying issue. That way it won’t happen again.
So, we will work on treating your TMJ disorder, which will treat jaw lock.
Your TMJ disorder may be mild and can be treated by:
- Heat/ice therapy
- OTC pain medication (Tylenol or Ibuprofen)
- Resting the joint
More serious TMJ disorders are treated with either mouth guards or TMJ surgery.
The sooner you can get TMJ treatment, the better it will be. Not treating TMJ early can lead to extensive damage. And at that point, the only solution will be surgery.
Set Your Jaw Free
Learn More About TMJ Disorders
Experiencing jaw lock can be frustrating and stressful. It’s even worse when it keeps happening over and over.
Persistent jaw lock is a sign that there is something going on with your jaw joint. Knowing that you may have a TMJ disorder can help you figure out what to do next. You should do some more digging and talk to someone who has experience with the jaw joint. The more you know the easier it will be to get the help you need.
If you want to learn more about TMJ disorders, check out our TMJ Center or reach out to us with any questions.