Over the period of a few months, I’d been waking with severe pain on the right side of my jaw. The area felt swollen and the muscles inflamed. It was difficult to chew and if I moved my jaw in a certain direction, it would sometimes lock in place. The feeling was unpleasant and it was causing daily headaches.
I realised a visit to the dentist was long overdue if I wanted to get rid of the pain in my jaw. If this sounds like something you’re experiencing right now or periodically, your jaw muscle pain could be the result of grinding your teeth. Let’s take a closer look at teeth clenching to see if it could solve the puzzle of your swollen jaw pain.
What is teeth grinding?
Teeth grinding occurs when you move your jaw while your teeth are clenched. The result can wear away the enamel on your teeth, in which case it will be obvious to your dentist. Clenching the teeth without grinding is also common. When this happens, you tend to tighten your teeth together without necessarily moving them back and forth. It results in less wear and tear but has the same effect on your jaw muscles.
Though many people experience teeth grinding at some point in their lives, it is most common in women and children and begins to taper off by the time an adult reaches 65 years of age. Just to complicate matters, teeth grinding – the leading cause of jaw muscle pain – may occur sporadically over a lifetime. However, only a small percentage of people will experience it consistently.
Why does it affect your jaw muscles?
Your temporomandibular joint (TMJ) is a ball-and-socket system that connects the jaw to the skull. It allows you to open and close your mouth when you speak or chew. When grinding or clenching your teeth, it can put pressure on your muscles, tissues and the structures of the jaw. Though painful jaw muscles are a common symptom, you may also experience:
- Tightening or stiffening of the jaw muscles
- Pain in the face
- Swelling from clenching
- Locked jaw, or a popping sound on opening the mouth
- Ear ringing or temporal pain
- A grinding sound during the night (possibly heard by your partner)
- Enlarged jaw muscles
Jaw muscle pain can be dull and achy or throbbing, constant and uncomfortable. It may stick around or come and go, can appear on the right side and on the left side. Because your teeth grinding can cause any number of jaw problems, from muscles to joints to tendons, your case may be completely different than someone else’s.
How do you know if you’re grinding your teeth?
If you’ve got the tell-tale symptoms listed above, you’re well on your way to figuring out what’s causing your jaw muscles to hurt. Teeth grinding can occur during the day or at night. If you’re clenching or grinding throughout the day, it could be due to stress at work, intense focus on a project, or anger over a disagreement.
You may even be doing it out of habit or it may be a nervous tic. People who experience night-time teeth grinding are usually unaware they are clenching or grinding their teeth. Their partner may be the only way they have of knowing it so in the absence of a partner, bruxism can be hard to detect. As you sleep, you move through several sleep stages in your non-REM and REM cycle.
Teeth grinding occurs as you move from a deeper stage of sleep to a lighter one. It can cause jaw muscle pain and dysfunction when you wake. Though it may result from the same stressors as daytime grinding, it can also be caused by a sleep disorder, such as obstructive sleep apnea.
What if bruxism is causing my jaw muscles to hurt?
If you think the swollen jaw on one side is the result of teeth grinding, it is possible to get the help you need to reduce the tension and aching. Seeing your dentist will be your first step to diagnosing and treating your problem. It’s advisable to get checked out as soon as possible because if left without treatment, bruxism can lead to multiple dental problems.
Your dentist will probably be able to tell just from looking at the erosion to your teeth if you’ve been grinding. But if you’re clenching or not grinding on a consistent basis, your dentist may require some clinical observations to figure out why you’re clenching and what’s causing the tension in your jaw. If bruxism is the problem, you may have to undergo a sleep study to check for related causes. Other jaw pain treatment options are:
- Special mouth guards or night appliances
- Stress relief and behaviour therapy
- Massage techniques
- Physical therapy
- Applying heat or ice compressions
- Removal of gum chewing or foods that disrupt jaw function
- Splint therapy that removes pressure from the joint
- Pain medication to ease inflammation
- Muscles relaxants to release tension in the jaw
As in my case, it can be difficult to make the connection between jaw pain and teeth grinding. Another reason it’s important to get checked by your dentist is the underlying reason for the pain may include disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis, osteomyelitis, temporomandibular disorder, an abscessed tooth, or gum disease. Having said that, teeth grinding is by far the leading cause of jaw pain.
I was lucky enough to have a dentist who recognised my condition and prescribed relaxation techniques and exercise therapy to help treat it. The relief has been immense so my advice to you is to seek care for this painful problem today. There’s no need for jaw pain to become your constant companion.
The American Academy of Oral Medicine, ‘Teeth Grinding and Clenching’.
Harvard University. Harvard Health Publications, ‘Temporomadibular Joint Dysfunction’.
US National Library of Medicine. MedlinePlus, ‘Bruxism’.