Neck and jaw pain often occur simultaneously, which is unsurprising given the proximity of these tissues. To find out some common causes of neck and jaw pain, related symptoms, and how to treat this type of pain, read on!
Problems with the jaw and facial muscles controlling the jaw are referred to as temporomandibular disorders (TMD). This is because of the temporomandibular joint (TMJ) which connects the jaw to the temporal bones of the skull (these bones are just in front of the ears). The TMJ acts as a hinge to allow the jaw to move up, down, and side to side so we can chew, talk, and yawn.
Causes of TMD
Acute injury to the jaw joint, or cumulative wear and tear can result in TMD. Problems may be related to issues with the bones and joints themselves, or with the muscles involved in moving the jaw.
Some common causes of neck and jaw pain include:
- A blow to the jaw
- Grinding the teeth (bruxism) or clenching the teeth
- Arthritis in the TMJ
- Stress (which causes tightening of the facial and joint muscles)
- Undesirable movement or changes in the disc or other tissues in the TMJ.
Symptoms of TMD
TMD is more common in women than in men and in people aged 20-40. Symptoms of TMD may be bilateral or unilateral, meaning that they are felt on one or both sides of the face. TMD can make it difficult to sleep, eat, talk, and yawn. Such symptoms may be temporary (especially if related to acute injury), or can last for years.
TMD symptoms can include pain in the jaw itself as well as neck pain and discomfort. Other symptoms may include:
- Pain or tenderness in the face, neck, shoulders, and ears (especially when moving the mouth)
- Difficulty opening the mouth wide
- Clicking, popping, or scraping sounds, or locking of the jaw
- Fatigue in the facial muscles and jaw
- A feeling of the teeth not fitting together properly (or an uncomfortable bite)
- Facial swelling
- Toothache or earache
- Headaches and dizziness
- Hearing issues (including ringing in the ears)
- Pain in the upper shoulder.
As might be expected with such myriad symptoms, it can be hard to determine the cause of neck and jaw pain. Issues such as cavities in the teeth, sinusitis, TMJ disc degeneration, or even thyroid problems might be at the root of such symptoms.
To determine the root of the pain, most patients will see a dentist or a specialized physician. The doctor or dentist will examine the jaw and neck and take a medical history. The jaw muscles and joint will be tested to see if there is an alignment problem or other mechanical issues. In some cases, an x-ray of the jaw and teeth may be taken, or MRI or CT scans may be performed.
Treating Neck and Jaw Pain
Depending on the issue, neck and jaw pain from TMD may be treated through:
- Dental work
- Physical therapy
- Psychological therapy to decrease stress
- Over the counter medications (naproxen, ibuprofen, etc.)
- Prescription drugs – muscle relaxants, analgesics, anxiolytics and antidepressants
- Heat and cold packs
- Natural anti-inflammatory products
- Dietary modification – choosing softer foods and cutting foods into smaller pieces
- Lifestyle modification – avoiding singing, yawning, chewing (especially gum or ice), shouting, or other significant joint movements.
Good posture is also helpful for neck and jaw pain related to TMD or other issues. This means not resting your chin on your hand or propping your phone between your ear and shoulder, and ensuring that computer screens are at the correct height.
A night guard can help those who have jaw and neck pain from grinding their teeth at night. It is important to have this properly prescribed and fitted by a dentist, however. In some cases, a mouth guard can actually exacerbate or cause neck and jaw pain. Splints can also help some people with TMD and are used during the day to keep the jaw in line.
Further Treatments for Neck and Jaw Pain
Where the above treatments don’t offer significant relief from symptoms of jaw and neck pain, a doctor may suggest the following:
- Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) – pain relief that works by helping to relax muscles
- Ultrasound – using deep heat to relax muscles, relieve tightness and enhance range of motion
- Trigger-point injections – targeted injections of analgesic drugs to tender muscles in the face
- Radio wave therapy – to encourage blood flow in the joint, helping to reduce pain
- Low-level laser therapy (LLLT) – to decrease pain and inflammation and enhance jaw mobility
- Surgery for TMD – arthrocentesis, arthroscopy, or open joint surgery.
In many cases, neck and jaw pain is temporary and resolves with minimal intervention. Just as with other joints that may trigger neck and back pain, the jaw is prone to wear and tear. This means that the likelihood of jaw pain being related to arthritis increases with age and may offer an indication of other sites of arthritis in the body.