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7 reasons for jaw pain and when to see a doctor

You use your jaw any time you talk, eat, drink, or swallow. So, if you wake up with jaw pain, it can be debilitating, leading to symptoms including facial pain, ear ache, and headache.

Diagnosing jaw pain is tricky, since it can be caused by a number of factors, including dental problems, nerve damage, infections, injury, or tumors, says Dr. Yasmeen Jalal, an ear, nose and throat specialist at Memorial Hermann Health System.

Important: Severe jaw pain can cause swelling in your airways,which can make it difficult to breathe, Jalal says. If you have trouble breathing along with jaw pain, seek emergency medical care immediately.  

Here are seven reasons why you may have jaw pain and how to treat it.

1. TMD

One of the most common causes of jaw pain is temporomandibular joint and muscle disorders, or TMD. 

The temporomandibular joints (TMJ) are the points on either side of your face where your upper jaw and lower jaw meet. 

These joints comprise a vast network of bones, cartilage and nerves. That means there's a lot that can go wrong in the TMJ, including arthritis, dislocation, or nerve pain, says Dr. Monica Kalra, a family physician.

TMD is characterized by pain on one side of the face, says Dr. Riza T Conroy, a family medicine physician. The pain often comes and goes. You might also have clicking in the jaw, locking, or reduced range of motion. 

Oftentimes, doctor's don't know the cause of TMD, although there appears to be a genetic link. Orthodontic problems, stress, and tooth grinding can also contribute to TMD.

What to do: See your primary care provider, dentist, or oral surgeon. They'll work with you to determine what's causing your TMD, and find a treatment. 

Common treatment options include physical therapy, wearing a mouth guard, and lifestyle changes including dietary changes and stress management. If those don't work or if your TMD is severe, you may need surgery. 

2. Dental issues

Since the jaw holds the teeth and surrounding nerves, you may feel pain from tooth issues in your jaw. 

Dental issues including cavities, periodontal disease (gum disease), gingivitis (inflammation of the gums), and tooth infections can all cause this, Kalra says. 

If dental issues are causing your jaw pain, you might notice these symptoms, according to Conroy:

  • Pain on one side or in a specific area
  • Pain that gets worse when you eat or drink something hot or cold
  • Bad breath or an unpleasant taste in your mouth
  • Swelling in your jaw
  • Fever

What to do: See your dentist. They'll likely do an exam to look for gum disease or infection, and use x-rays to diagnose cavities. Once they treat the root of the problem, your jaw pain should resolve. 

3. Sinus Infection

The sinuses are air pockets located on top of the jaw. If they get filled with fluid due to a cold, seasonal allergies, smoking, or structural issues, you may develop a sinus infection

A sinus infection can put pressure on your sinus cavities, leading to jaw pain. You'll likely notice other symptoms too, including:

  • Facial pressure or swelling
  • Headache
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Bad breath

What to do: See your primary care provider. In many cases, doctors recommend waiting to see if the symptoms of a sinus infection clear on their own, which usually takes about 10 days. 

Using an over-the-counter decongestant, putting a warm compress on your face, and taking steamy showers can help with symptoms

But if it lasts longer than 10 days or is severe, your doctor may recommend taking antibiotics. 

4. Ear infection

When you have an ear infection, the pain can radiate through your face and into your jaw, Conroy says. Ear infections are more common in kids, but they can occur in adults too. 

If an ear infection is causing your jaw pain, you might notice other symptoms including:

  • Pain on one side of the head or face
  • Fever
  • Trouble hearing
  • Issues with balance
  • Fluid draining from the ear
  • Trouble sleeping 

What to do: In most cases, ear infections clear up without treatment within three days. Use an over-the-counter pain reliever and warm compresses to manage pain until it starts to resolve. 

5. Parotid gland issues

The parotid gland produces saliva and is located at the back of the lower jaw and cheek region.. 

If the ducts in the gland become blocked, it can lead to inflammation known as parotitis. This causes pain and swelling at the back of the jaw. Although the pain might start at one side, it usually progresses to both sides, Conroy says. 

In addition to pain, you might notice symptoms including:

  • Changes to how much you can open your mouth
  • Pain that gets worse when eating
  • Swelling, particularly in front of the ears
  • Redness on the face or neck
  • Dry mouth
  • Foul taste in your mouth
  • Fever

What to do: See your primary care doctor. They'll do an exam, then order additional testing, which may include a CT scan, MRI, ultrasound, or blood work to identify what's causing the parotitis. 

Depending on the cause, treatments include massage and warm compresses, antibiotics, and surgery.

6. Nerve damage

In rare cases, jaw pain is caused by damage to the trigeminal nerve, Jalal says. This nerve extends throughout the face, including in the jaw. There are three main ways that the nerve can be affected:

  • Impacts and injuries to your face can harm your trigeminal nerve, leading to pain, numbness, and decreased movement.
  • Trigeminal neuropathy, a nerve condition often caused by diabetes, can lead to numbness.
  • Trigeminal neuralgia, a specific type of neuropathy, can cause sudden, severe, lightning-like pain on one side of the face. Episodes of pain are usually short, but likely to reoccur. 

The most common symptom of nerve damage is a tingling feeling that feels like pins and needles. You may also feel weakness in your jaw. 

What to do: Talk to your doctor. Sometimes, damage from injury or impact resolves over time. If the nerve was severed, you may need surgery. Treatments for trigeminal neuralgia include anticonvulsant medications, muscle relaxers, and botox. 

7. Jaw tumor or cysts

Another rare case of jaw pain is tumors and cysts, Jalal says. 

Odontogenic tumors, which are tumors around the jaw and mouth, develop from the tissue involved in tooth development. 

They can cause symptoms like: 

  • Swelling around the jaw or mouth that feels hard to the touch and may expand over time
  • Loose teeth

Jaw tumors usually are not cancerous, but they can grow rapidly, displacing the normal tissue and bone in the jaw and leading to pain. 

What to do: See your doctor. They'll likely recommend imaging, including x-rays, a CT scan, or an MRI. They'll also likely do a biopsy to make sure the tumor isn't cancerous. Oftentimes, jaw tumors need to be surgically removed

Insider's Takeaway

Jaw pain can have a big impact on your life. If you experience severe, persistent, or recurring jaw pain, it's a good idea to talk to your primary care provider or dentist. 

Jaw pain is usually treatable, but if you delay seeking help you could open yourself up to complications. 

"Delayed or incorrect diagnosis can result in improper healing that can lead to chronic pain and difficulty eating," Jalal says. "Timely diagnosis and treatment can result in good outcomes."

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