The Ultimate Guide for Jaw Pain: TMJ Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

The Ultimate Guide for Jaw Pain: TMJ Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

Jaw pain can range from completely annoying or downright debilitating. When intense, pain coming from the jaw, also known as the temporomandibular joint (TMJ), can radiate to your face, ears, teeth, and neck and make it hard to talk, eat, or function. 



Part of the reason why jaw pain is so variable is due to the complexity of the joint. Because of this, it’s important to understand the anatomy of the joint. Then, we will discuss treatment options and 5 ways to get rid of jaw pain. 

Where does jaw pain come from?
Jaw pain can come from different parts of the TMJ, which functions to allow your jaw to move freely in multiple directions. The joint itself is made up of the skull, jaw, muscles, two shock-absorbing discs, and a bundle of blood vessels and nerves called the retrodiscal pad. The shock-absorbing discs protect the bones from normal wear and tear, like the meniscus in your knee. Since the discs and retrodiscal pad have their own blood supply and nerves, they are vulnerable to inflammation, disease, and trauma.

It is important to know that jaw pain can occur with or without TMJ dysfunction, which refers to a problem within the components of the TMJ. 

Some common signs and symptoms of TMJ dysfunction are: 

  • Pain that follows along the jawline
  • One-sided jaw pain
  • Neck pain or tightness
  • Headaches
  • Ringing in the ear(s)
  • Sharp pain that radiates into the ear
  • Clicking or popping sounds in the TMJ
  • “Catching” or “locking” of the jaw joint
  • Pain with eating
  • Pain with talking or certain sleeping positions

Where is the Temporomandibular joint (TMJ)?
Place a finger on each earlobe and slide upwards to the tragus (the fleshy part in front of your ear opening). You should feel a bump, which is your temporomandibular joint. Slowly open and close your mouth as you feel the bumps move underneath your fingers. 

Expert tip: Check for symmetry of movement on each side. Do both sides of the joint move in unison as you open and close your jaw, or does one side before the other? Can you feel any clicking or popping as the joint moves back and forth? 

Diagnosis of TMJ dysfunction
Diagnosing jaw pain and TMJ dysfunction is done by a clinical evaluation that is based upon your symptoms, medical history, and a physical examination of the TMJ. 

A dentist may check your teeth, gums, or tongue to see if they are contributing to your pain and/or TMJ dysfunction. Although he or she may order X -Rays to check each tooth’s structure, other imaging techniques, like a CT scan or MRI, are not typically used to diagnose TMJ dysfunction except to rule out nerve or disc damage.

5 ways to get rid of jaw pain
Finding ways to get rid of jaw pain can be challenging, but the secret is to find the right treatment that fits your needs. 

Treatment options for jaw pain depend on the problem that causes the pain. Chances are, you will benefit from using one (or more) of these methods below. You should always seek medical attention if you are suffering from intense, unrelenting pain. Without further ado, here are 5 ways to get rid of jaw pain: 

1. Jaw exercises for TMJ dysfunction
If your jaw pain results from abnormal jaw movements, then coordination exercises can re-establish normal mobility of the TMJ. Refer back to the Expert Tip above to see if this might be you. 

The most popular exercises for TMJ dysfunction are known as Rocabado 6x6 exercises. Dr. Rocabado created six oral and postural exercises to reteach proper jaw and neck movements. Each exercise is performed for six repetitions, six times per day. 

2. Change your lifestyle habits
Changing your lifestyle habits, especially oral habits, can be helpful in stopping jaw pain. For those with one-sided jaw pain, try chewing foods on both sides of your mouth at the same time. Check your posture as you sit at your workstation. Are you propping your hand underneath your jaw as you watch a tutorial? 

Avoid crunchy or chewy foods, like a hard granola bar or steak, that can trigger jaw pain. Also, engaging in stress management techniques can decrease jaw pain that is caused by teeth grinding and jaw clenching. Try this full-body Yoga/Pilates workout

3. Check your sleeping position 
Imagine being in one or two positions for 6-8 hours. You would expect to be sore and uncomfortable, right? This is what can happen to your jaw muscles after spending the night in an unnatural sleeping position. Our nighttime position can play a role in jaw pain, especially for stomach sleepers. Poor sleeping posture can place stress on neck, shoulder, and back muscles. 

Instead, sleep on your back with proper pillow support behind your head and neck. Alternatively, you can lay on your side with your neck and jaw supported by a pillow. 

4. Try a night guard
Some people might benefit from a night guard/night splint to help them maintain an optimal jaw position. In theory, maintaining a resting jaw position during the night prevents jaw clenching or teeth grinding that leads to jaw pain. Night guards accomplish this by holding the jaw in a slightly open position as if you are saying the letter “N.” 

However, realize that night guards do not work for everyone who suffers from jaw pain. They are mostly effective for people who experience jaw pain from teeth grinding or jaw clenching.

5. Seek professional help

Sometimes, DIY diagnosis and treatment are not enough. If you have suffered from chronic pain without relief, then it is time to seek professional help. Beyond your physician, you may be referred to an oral surgeon, an oral and maxillofacial specialist, an ENT specialist, or a highly-specialized dentist. 

When it comes to professional treatment, a physical therapist is well-qualified to treat TMJ dysfunction and the surrounding tissues and muscles that trigger jaw pain. The therapist might use hands-on treatments to reduce stiffness within the TMJ, neck, or facial muscles.  Most people often need neck and shoulder stretches to reduce tension in neighboring muscles.

Takeaway points

  • The temporomandibular joint (TMJ) includes your skull, jaw, retrodiscal pad, and shock-absorbing discs. Jaw pain can arise from problems within any of these areas, and is known as TMJ dysfunction. 
  • TMJ dysfunction is typically not diagnosed through imaging techniques like CT scans or MRIs, however, X-Rays may be taken to assess teeth structure. 
  • Lifestyle changes can help manage jaw pain and TMJ dysfunction. Check your sitting and sleeping postures, stress levels, and oral habits. 
  • You may also benefit from jaw exercises and a night guard to help you maintain a resting jaw position and restore normal motion.

It is important to realize that, like many conditions, TMJ dysfunction does not have a one-size-fits-all approach to treatment. Because most sources of jaw pain come from abnormal movements of the TMJ, your best treatment option is to restore normal motion. As always, check in with a professional for individualized and comprehensive treatment options. 

We want to hear from you! Have you experienced chronic jaw pain? What tips have helped you to overcome jaw pain and discomfort? Any additional suggestions for your fellow readers?

Written for Fitness Blender by Kayla Covert, PT, DPT
Board-Certified Neurological Clinical Specialist