Clicking Jaw, Jaw Pain & TMJ Dysfunction – Symptoms, Treatment

Clicking jaw, also referred to as popping jaw or TMJ (temporomandibular joint) syndrome/dysfunction is a symptom associated with inflammation of the temporomandibular joint or uncoordinated action of the facial muscles.

Place your cursor over selected (red outlined) areas for a further explanation of the diagram.

Human Skull

The mandible (lower jaw) is the movable section of the skull that articulates (movement at the joint) with the temporal bones of the skull at the tempromandibular joint (temporal – mandible). The maxilla (upper jaw) is fixed to the skull and both the upper and lower jaws work together to assist with biting, chewing and eating. Under certain conditions, the tempromandibular joint (TMJ) articulation is affected often leading to a range of symptoms like jaw pain, clicking jaw (audible), popping  jaw (sensation) and headaches. These symptoms are most often caused by inflammation of the joint although the main muscles of chewing can also cause the abovementioned joint symptoms.

The pain in the jaw is usually at the back of the jaw, near the ear or around the area of the wisdom teeth. This pain may radiate to the ear, temples of the head or neck. Refer to the image above for areas most affected by TMJ dysfunction.   Before diagnosing any jaw pain as TMJ dysfunction, it should be investigated if other possible causes could be the source of pain in this region.

Other causes of jaw pain include a dental abscess, impacted wisdom teeth, mumps, parotiditis, otitis media (infection of the middle ear), otitis externa (infection of the outer ear) or spasm of the facial or neck muscles. It is advisable to seek professional medical help if you are experiencing TMJ pain as can be associated with angina or even a heart attack.

Clicking Jaw Symptoms :

  • Pain, tenderness and/or swelling of the jaw
  • ‘Clicking’ sound when opening and closing the mouth
  • ‘Popping’ or grinding of the TMJ when opening and closing the mouth
  • Temporofrontal headaches (headaches of the forehead or temples – refer to image above)
  • Aching pain in or around the ear
  • ‘Locked jaw’ when opening or closing the mouth
  • Visible or palpable (can be felt) erosion of some teeth
  • Difficult chewing or discomfort when chewing
  • Hearing disturbances (rare)

Causes of Clicking Jaw:

Causes can be broadly divided into those that affect the anatomical structure of the temporomandibular joint itself and those that affect the muscle responsible for movement of the jaw or other facial muscles.

Temporomandubular (Jaw) Joint :

These causes affect the articulating surfaces of the joint, damages the joint cartilage or causes inflammation of the joint.

  • Bruxism (constant clenching of teeth) when sleeping (parasomnia) or awake (often due to stress and anxiety)
  • Impact or trauma to the face and/or lower jaw area
  • Rheumatoid arthritis or osteoarthritis
  • Congenital deformity of the facial bones
  • Ankylosis
  • Infection resulting from secondary spread from a dental abscess

Muscles of the Skull :

  • Fibromyalgia
  • Lax muscles or ligaments
  • Tetanus and other infections that affect muscles
  • Paralysis of the facial muscles

Diagnosis of Clicking Jaw:

Diagnosis is usually based on the symptoms reported by the patient. Further examination by a medical professional may reveal pain on palpation (deep physical examination with the hand) of the affected area. A distinct “pop” or slip may be felt at the joint upon opening and closing the mouth. An x-ray can be useful in highlighting any joint swelling, bone degeneration or incorrectly articulating joint surfaces.

Treatment of Clicking Jaw:

  • A dental guard (also referred to as a bite or mouth guard) can often reduce the impact of constant clenching (bruxism) which will assist with your clicking jaw. A dental guard will not resolve the symptoms associated with temporomandibular joint inflammation but it will significantly improve the severity of the symptoms that one is experiencing.
  • Anti-inflammatory drugs will reduce the swelling and pain associated with temporomandibular joint (TMJ) inflammation but is not a long term option.
  • Corticosteroids are effective for a more prolonged reduction of the joint swelling and can be injected into the joint. This will only be of assistance if the causative factors are addressed to prevent further inflammation.
  • Restorative orthodontic procedures can be useful if the cause of the clicking jaw is related to a disturbance with bite or other jaw deformities.
  • If your clicking jaw is caused by osteo- or rheumatoid arthritis, appropriate treatment is important to treat your arthritis.

Conservative Management :

  • Avoid excessive use of the temporomandibular joint caused by chewing gum.
  • Chewing on hard foods like nuts can aggravate the condition further.
  • Resting the jaw and applying warm compresses may also assist but the condition will recur if tha causative factors are not addressed.
  • A bite guard may be useful but has to be used constantly to assist with bruxism.
  • Stress is often known to be a major contributing factor to constant clenching of the teeth (bruxism). When stressed, it is a natural tendency to clench the teeth and periods of prolonged clenching can cause TMJ symptoms like a clicking jaw. To assist with your clicking jaw, it is advisable to address stress. Stress management or anti-anxiety drugs can prove to be useful in these instances.
  • Certain exercises may be useful in treating muscle disorders that contribute to clicking jaw but should only be implemented with the advice of a medical practitioner. Excessive exercises of the affected area may further aggravate joint inflammation and exacerbate a clicking jaw.

Clicking Jaw Complications :

If left untreated, a clicking jaw can complicate to cause erosion of the joint lining or articulating bones. While this is rare, it should be considered in long term TMJ dysfunction. Consult with your dental practitioner or a maxillofacial specialist if you notice that your symptoms are persisting or aggravating.

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  • John

    Hello, I am havin a problem with my jaw for the past 2 or 3 years. I often have some smasmodic pains there. Right now my lower jay muscle is obviously greatly swolen, which has given me an unusual facial structure. the last part of my tooth above seems to be touching the lower part always. I met my dentist bt he suspected I brux. Now im confused. pls advice me. I am a 26 year old man

  • Dr. Chris

    Hi John

    For it to cause facial distortion means that it would have to be very severe muscle spasm and/or TMJ dysfunction. You would need to see an orthodontist and/or maxillofacial specialist. Certain neuromuscular and hormonal conditions need to be excluded as well. This is unlikely (but it is possible) to be just a matter of bruxism. I would advise that you see a doctor as well.

  • Alana

    I am 16 years old, and just barely today, I suddenly felt a sore pain begin in the back of my jaw, on the right side, right behind where the wisdom teeth are. Whenever I open my mouth I feel a pop or a click, I really don’t know the true difference, and then my mouth tries to slowly snap close. It’s been like this for about an hour and a half. It hurts when I move my mouth in the slightest, but it doesn’t hurt too bad. It only aches when I don’t move it. I’ve read the jaw could lock, and the thought of it scares me a bit. I have clenched my teeth today, and have rested my hand on my head.
    What I would like to know is how I can treat it and if the pain will ever go away. I never had this experience before up until now.

  • Dr. Chris

    Hi Alana

    There is no reason to suspect that this will be a long term condition. Given the sudden onset and severity of symptoms, it is most likely an acute condition that will pass with the proper treatment. It is difficult to say how you should treat it without knowing the exact cause. You need to see a doctor who can assess it appropriately and start with the necessary treatment. It should resolve with time.

  • Chrus

    Hi Dr,

    I am 20 years old and relatively healthy. I am not sure exactly when my jaw began to hurt. I woke up two days ago and just couldnt open my mouth wide, I can fit two fingers in width in between my teeth,but not more then that. I have been eating liquids and extremely soft food and things like rice. I initially thought it was my wisdom teeth. I have had a small headache but not sure if it was related. I have been gargling salt water twice a day and just took afew nurefons thinking it will go away. Tomorrow will be the fourth day. I dont hear any clicking, popping as others have described nor does it hurt near my ear or neck. The pain mainly occurs when I need to eat, as I cant open my mouth wide enough. It feels as though the back left of my jaw is like I dont know (locked?). I dont grind my teeth. Im not sure what it could be. I’m extremely scared, liek it doesnt effect me when I dont think about it, butw hen I eat it does hurt and is painful, will it go away? Does it sound like common wisdom tooth pain? or? I have exams at the moment and I am under stress, but I don’t think this is the cause.

    Kind Regards, Chris.

  • Dr. Chris

    Hi Chrus

    It is unlikely that the wisdoms could have caused such a severe problem with the jaw so suddenly unless there is an infection that has spread to the TM joint. This should not be left as it is and you need to see a doctor immediately. It is however common where TMJ dysfunction is aggravated severely during times of stress. While it is often believed that this is due to unknowingly clenching the teeth due to the stress, it is also possible that the stress hormones may have some effect on the joint lining in chronic TMJ dysfunction. See a doctor immediately.

  • manu

    hello doctor
    i am 24 years old..i have clicking sound on the left side of my jaw and few years back i got my jaw x rayed wherein there was inflamation on the right side of my jaw as when i used to wake up in morning my jaw felt uneasy to i do not have any such problem, no pain but the clicking sound persists..the doctor advised taking of anti inflamatory medicine but i did not.please advise.

  • Dr. Chris

    HI Manu

    You should try the anti-inflammatory drugs and if the popping sound eases then you know that it is related to inflammation. Although original problem was on the right side, it is possible that you altered your bite in a way that is now straining the opposite side. You should see your doctor and/or dentist for more advice.

  • Sally

    Hi, just wondering if I should be concerned? The right side of my jaw started clicking 1 week ago, every time I open my mouth. There is just a very slight ache to the area near my ear but not really enough to worry about. The clicking is constant and has not let up for a week. I am a healthy active person and haven’t been involved in any physical altercations at all.
    Should I be worried and go visit the doctor/dentist?

  • Dr. Chris

    Hi Sally

    It is difficult to say just how serious this is. While TMJ irritation may be seen with hurting the area when trying to bite down on hard foods, stress and so on, it needs to be assessed to ensure that this is not the start of a more chronic ailment. There is no need to worry about this just yet but yes, it is necessary to have it assessed by your doctor. This could be something serious like an ear infection that has spread to the TMJ. If it is minor though, then no treatment may be necessary. With conditions like bruxism (grinding of the teeth) which you may not be aware of, a bite guard can offer significant relief.