Why Is My Jaw Stiff? -- Causes and Top10 Natural Remedies
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Why Is My Jaw Stiff? -- Causes and Top 10 Natural Remedies

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November 1, 2011, last updated July 21, 2014

By ALISON TURNER, Featured Columnist

Stiffness or pain in the jaw happens to most of us at some point. In fact, an estimated 10 million Americans are affected by jaw stiffness and various jaw problems, according to The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research. Stiffness in your jaw can interfere with normal eating.

Stiff jaw pain, while annoying, often goes away on its own. But sometimes, stiff jaw pain is a sign of something more serious. 

One of the most common conditions that you could feel in your jaw is lengthily termed termpromandibular joint disorders (commonly shortened, thankfully, to TMD or TMJ), defined by The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research as "a group of conditions that cause pain and dysfunction in the jaw joint and muscles that control jaw movement."   But are there other conditions that cause jaw pain? What causes a stiff jaw? What natural remedies, if any, can help a stiff jaw?

Unfortunately, the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research reports that "for most jaw joint and muscle problems, scientists don't know the causes" - though researchers are hard at work to know more about the problem. 

Does your jaw make clicking sounds? The Institute dispels several myths about jaw function: clicking sounds, for example, do not lead to serious concern, but are rather "common in the general population."  Similarly, the connection between tooth grinding and TMD is unclear, as "many people with these disorders do not grind their teeth, and many long-time tooth grinders do not have painful joint symptoms."

Treatment for jaw stiffness or soreness very much depends on its cause.  Dental surgery is often an option, as are drugs to treat pain.  Below is a list of 10 of the most common culprits of jaw stiffness or pain and their more specific treatment options.  The first four on the list are acknowledged by experts as types of TMD or TMJ, while the following six grow from other conditions.

1.  Myofascial pain.  The most common type of tempromandibular joint dysfunction is myofascial pain, pain in the muscles that control the function of the jaw. 

The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research advises cautious treatment for myofascial pain (and for almost any other form of TMD) that does not "invade" the jaw, joint, or tissues of the face.  They recommend eating soft foods, avoiding "extreme" jaw movements such as loud singing or gum chewing, and jaw stretches.

There are, however, other remedies for myofascial pain being explored throughout the scientific community.  A study published in 2001, for example, by Drs. Michael Cummings and Adrian White with the British Medical Acupuncture Society in London and the University of Exeter, respectively,  looked at the effectiveness of "needling therapies" on myofascial pain. They conclude  that "direct needling of myofascial trigger points appears to be an effective treatment."  That is, of course, if you can tolerate needles around your jaw.

Other therapies which have been explored include massage of the face. Interestingly, massage does not appear to help TMD, according to a 2013 study from doctors at the Universidade Nove de Julho in Brazil.

2.   Internal derangement of the jaw joint.  An internal derangement is the slipping out of place of the articular disc, a piece of cartilage between the ball and socket of the jaw joint.  When this disc is out of place (or degenerates or becomes misshapen) the bones are not properly supported but continue to try to function as usual, creating pain and damage that becomes worse with time.

The New York-Presbyterian Hospital posts  that often times the articular disc is compromised because of "tearing or stretching of the ligaments holding the disc in place," which could be caused by acute trauma, "such as a blow to the face."  Protecting the jaw area during bar fights may be worth your while.

Typical treatments for internal jaw derangement range from a diet of soft food, to a bite guard, to muscle relaxants or surgery.  A recent study (2010) conducted by a team of researchers from the Department of Oral & maxillofacial Surgery at the Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University in Bangladesh  looked at using hyaluronic acid injections for TMD surgery, a method that has been used since the 90s for patients with knee osteoarthritis.   The team tracked 25 patients who underwent jaw surgery with an injection of hyaluronic acid, finding that after six months there was an average of 84% reduction in pain and a 92% improvement in "mouth opening." 

If you suffer from internal jaw derangement and would like to move on with a pain free jaw and a mouth that opens as wide as you want it to, consider asking your doctor about including hyaluronic acid in your TMD treatment. 

3.  Arthritis.  Arthritis is a just another word for "inflammation." Swelling from arthritis in the jaw area could affect functioning of the jaw, or create feelings of pain or stiffness.

There is a particularly distressing connection between children with juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA) and TMD /TMJ.  A study in 2008 led by Dr. Pamela Weiss with the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania Center for Clinical Epidemiology and Biostatistics,  found that "TMD arthritis was present in the majority of patients with new-onset JIA." 

The authors of the study report that juvenile idiopathic arthritis affects about one of one thousand children worldwide, but that the corresponding prevalence of TMD/ TMJ has been ignored until recently.  Arthritis of the tempromandibular joint is of particular concern to young, growing patients "because the mandibular growth plate is located below the fibrocartilage and is therefore susceptible to damage from inflammation" which could lead to asymmetric growth amongst other conditions, and may predispose the children to jaw pain and dysfunction later in life.

Dr. Weiss and colleagues advise that an MRI is the "preferable" method of TMD /TMJ detection for children with juvenile idiopathic arthritis. (Read more about the ideal diet to relieve arthritis pain and inflammation.)

4.  Rheumatic disease.   The term "rheumatic" refers to a broad category of diseases characterized by inflammation and impaired function of  connection or supporting structures of the body.  The National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases  reports over 100 kinds of rheumatic diseases, affecting joints, tendons, ligaments, bones, muscles, even internal organs - and, of course, tissues lining the jaw joints. Perhaps the most commonly known type of rheumatic disease is "arthritis," (see above) which indicates swelling that is specifically in the joints.

You can be born with a susceptibility to rheumatic disease, such as osteoarthritis, a weakness of the cartilage that is inherited - but most pre-existing conditions are usually combined with an environmental factor, such as repeated injury or excessive use of a particular joint. 

In 2009 a team of specialists from Rhode Island Hospital, Brown University, and Yunnan University in China, led by Waihong Chung,  analyzed the treatment options for rheumatic disease pain.  They found that while "standard pharmacological treatments with analgesics, antidepressants, and anticonvulsants can provide substantial relief, an increasing proportion of patients are seeking an integrated approach to pain management involving both pharmacological and non-pharmacological treatments." 

For some this means applying heat or warm compresses (thermotherapy), for others it means acupuncture or massage.  We are all comfortable with different types of care, so it is relieving to know that there are options for the pain from rheumatic disease.


Recent studies have also found that oranges contain a compound which relieves rheumatoid arthritis inflammation.

5.   Whiplash.  We've all heard the word "whiplash" but we don't all know what it means.

Whiplash is injury to soft tissue in the neck. Whiplash may also include damage to joints, discs, ligaments, cervical muscles, and nerve roots. 

While numbers remain low in most studies, there is a possible correlation between whiplash and later jaw dysfunction.  A study in 1994 led by Dr. T Magnusson with the Department of Neurology and Rehabilitation Medicine in ReykjavÝk, Iceland,  found that 10.5% of participants experienced jaw dysfunction after an experience of whiplash. 

While The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke  has reported the good news that "neck and head pain clears within a few days or weeks" from whiplash, jaw dysfunction may be a stubborn vestige from the experience. 

Treatment options for whiplash in general include pain medications, antidepressants, and a cervical collar that is generally worn for two to three weeks, along with muscle-targeted exercises. 

6.  Bone spurs in the neck.   Bone spurs are not what they sounds like: instead of spiky pokes, they are smooth, slow-growing structures, known in the medical world as osteophytes.  

Mayo Clinic staff members write that bone spurs in the neck can "protrude inward, occasionally making it difficult to swallow or painful to breathe."

Indeed, in 2007 Drs T.O. Seidler, J.C. PŔrez └lvarez and T. Hacki K. Wonneberger with the ENT Department at the University Clinic Regensburg in Germany conducted a study that analyzed this very possibility, observing how osteophytes anywhere on the spine (not solely near the neck) affect dysphagia, (difficulty swallowing). 

The team looked at 20 patients with a total of 32 bone spurs and observed that some cases displayed an "aspiration of thin liquids," others a "retention of solids" in the piriform sinus, and one patient suffered voice impairment. 

The researchers conclude that "the clinical symptoms were to some extent dependent on the size of the osteophytes" - all the more reason for bone spurs to be detected as soon as possible. 

The Mayo Clinic warns that often people ignore jaw stiffness or pain, not realizing they have bone spurs until they are revealed in an X-ray for a different condition.  If untreated, they could "push against veins, restricting blood flow to your brain" or lead to any of the examples listed above.  If your "jaw stiffness" seems to prevent swallowing, consider asking your doctor about X-rays for bone spurs in your neck.

7.   Trigeminal neuralgia

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