Locked Jaw: Why do I have a tight jaw, and what can I do about it?

Locked Jaw

Why do I have a tight jaw, and what can I do about it?

It sounds like the stuff of nightmares: your jaw is stuck in one position, open or closed. Any attempt to move the locked jaw results in extreme pain. You have experienced a tight jaw for a while, but this is beyond what it ever was before. This locked jaw can be a symptom of a TMJ disorder, a progressive problem that can be prevented if caught early!

What causes a locked jaw?

You may have heard of “lockjaw,” which is actually referring to Tetanus, a bacterial infection that is potentially fatal. If this is the cause of a locked jaw, it is also accompanied by a stiff abdomen, difficulty swallowing, and muscle contractions in the jaw and neck area. This is why we all likely got our Tetanus shots as children! If you suspect Tetanus is the cause of your locked jaw you must seek emergency medical care.

But Tetanus is not the only reason you might have a locked jaw. Temporomandibular Disorder (TMD) is a progressive condition, and if you do not seek treatment it may progress to the point where your jaw locks in an open or closed position.

What should I do if I have a locked jaw from TMD?

If you are experiencing a locked jaw, apply a warm compress for 10-15 minutes and gently massage the jaw. Seek help from a TMJ specialist as soon as possible.

Why can TMD lead to a locked jaw?

First, let’s take a closer look at TMD. TMD happens when your jaw doesn’t function properly. The jaw joint is cushioned and meant to bring the upper and lower jaw together in a comfortable position. Your bite greatly affects how your jaw functions, so if your bite is off, you risk wearing down the cushion at the joint. TMD can also be caused by teeth grinding (bruxism), which often occurs while sleeping.

If you have TMD, you may notice clicking, popping, or grating sounds when you open and close your jaw. You also may be limited in the range of motion of the jaw, especially with normal movement as you eat, yawn, or speak. You may feel the tightness or soreness in other areas as well—your teeth, or even your neck, head, nose, or ears.

And sometimes, TMD can lead to a locked jaw, where it is difficult or even impossible to open or close your mouth because of the displaced joint. This can happen if the muscle and joint are inflamed.

Treatment for a locked jaw.

The best way to keep TMD from progressing to the point of a locked jaw is to seek treatment. Treatment depends on the cause and symptoms of the TMD, which can be determined through a diagnostic exam. Phased treatment seeks to stabilize the jaw and relieve pain first, followed by correction of the issue.

Treatment may include:

  • An oral appliance (like a retainer) to stabilize the jaw or prevent teeth grinding.
  • Orthodontia to properly align the bite.
  • Crowns or dentures to repair teeth.
  • Chiropractic treatment, if symptoms are due to posture.
  • Surgery to repair the disc—although this is often a last resort after other options are explored.

Questions or Concerns? 

If you are concerned you may have TMD, set up a consultation today so we can get started treating it as soon as possible. A clinical examination can help us to determine if you are experiencing TMD and create a treatment plan. Set up an appointment today!

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