What Causes Jaw Pain?

Learn About 12 Causes of Jaw Pain

mature man with jaw pain
Uwe Umstatter/imageBROKER/Getty Images

Finding out what causes jaw pain can sometimes be difficult, since the pain can come from the muscles, nerves, or bones in the jaw or from areas of the body you'd never suspect. (For example, sudden jaw pain can be a symptom of a heart attack.) When jaw pain arises from a problem in another area of the body, it's called referred pain

Types of Jaw Pain

Temporomandibular Joint Disorder (TMJ)One of the more common causes of jaw pain, TMJ usually occurs as the result of a problem with the bones, ligaments, and/or other tissues that make up the temporomandibular joint, which connects your lower jaw bone to your skull.

TMJ may cause jaw pain that feels like a toothache, headache, or earache. 

Teeth Grinding (Bruxism). Teeth grinding can cause jaw pain, and, since many people grind their teeth while they are asleep, you may not be aware that you're doing it. Some research suggests that up to 8% of adults grind their teeth during sleep. Symptoms of bruxism include jaw, face, and neck pain, headaches, and dental problems including fractured teeth. Your dentist may notice signs of wear on your teeth that indicate indicate grinding. Mouth guards can be helpful in treating this condition. 

Toothaches. In addition to teeth grinding, there are multiple other dental problems associated with jaw pain. They include cavities, tooth abscesses, and infections.

There's also a condition called a neurovascular toothache, which causes intermittent, throbbing pain that feels like a toothache and may radiate to the jaw, face, neck, or shoulder.

Interestingly, even though this pain feels like a classic toothache, your dentist may be unable to find anything wrong with your teeth. Why not? Because the pain is referred to your jaw from somewhere else in your body.

Diagnosis of a neurovascular toothache is based on the doctor's findings, which may include:

  • Irritating the painful jaw area doesn't make the pain worse. However, irritating the suspected area where the pain originated, such as the opposite jaw from where the toothache is felt, does make the jaw pain worse.
  • The jaw pain comes and goes, with complete relief between painful episodes.
  • The patient may have a neurovascular disorder, such as migraine headaches.

Sinusitis. Sinusitis can cause pain in the face, including the jaw. Other symptoms of sinusitis include headaches, toothaches, earaches, and congestion. Sinusitis frequently occurs after you've had a cold.

Ear Infections. Jaw pain can actually be referred pain from an ear infection. Ear infections are more common in children than adults. However, they can occur at any age and can cause ear pain; a feeling of fullness or pressure in the ear; hearing loss; loss of balance; nausea and vomiting; and, occasionally, ear drainage. Like sinusitis, ear infections often occur after you've had a cold.

Swollen Lymph Nodes. Nodes in the neck may cause pain that's referred to the jaw.

Swollen lymph nodes usually occur as the result of an infection, such as strep throat, a cold virus, or the flu, so you may also have symptoms of these illnesses, such as a sore throat. In addition, you may be able to feel the swollen nodes in your neck; they can feel like a hard lump.

Rheumatoid Arthritis or Fibromyalgia. Conditions such as these (also including chronic fatigue syndrome), which can cause widespread muscle and joint pain, may also cause jaw pain.  

Trauma. Injuries to the jaw or face, including a dislocated or broken jaw, can cause significant pain.

Trigeminal Neuralgia. Trigeminal neuralgia is a painful condition that affects the trigeminal nerve. In addition to jaw pain, it may cause severe stabbing pain or pain that feels like an electric shock in the lips, eyes, nose, forehead, and scalp.

Osteonecrosis of the Jaw. Osteonecrosis occurs when the blood supply to a bone is disrupted and the bone begins to die. It can cause severe pain. Causes of osteonecrosis include excessive alcohol consumption, the use of corticosteroid medications, and trauma.

Some Types of Cancer. Certain types of cancer, including oral cancer, may cause jaw pain. Other such cancers include squamous cell carcinoma, multiple myeloma, osteosarcoma, giant cell tumors, and metastatic cancer (cancer that has spread to the jaw from elsewhere in the body).

Heart Attack. As noted previously, jaw pain may signal a heart attack. The pain usually starts suddenly and may be accompanied by crushing chest pain, which may radiate down the arm and affect the neck and jaw. Difficulty breathing, anxiety, and sweating may also occur. If you or someone you're with may be having a heart attack, go to the emergency room or call 911 immediately.

Sources:

Schiff BA. “Jaw tumors.” MerckManuals.Com (2016).

“Osteonecrosis.” American College of Rheumatology (2015). 

“Trigeminal neuralgia.” Cedars-Sinai.Edu (2016).

“Jaw-related conditions. Johns Hopkins Medicine (2016).

“Jaw pain.” American Dental Association-Mouth Healthy (2016).

“Teeth grinding.” National Sleep Foundation (2009).

Continue Reading