Why Does My Jaw Hurt? What Your Dentist Wants You to Know

There are numerous factors that may contribute to jaw pain, which can be quite bothersome in most instances. It is important to recognize that jaw pain can indicate either a dental issue or a potential emergency. In either case, it is advisable to promptly schedule an appointment with your dentist to ensure timely diagnosis of the condition while the symptoms are present. It is worth noting that symptoms of jaw pain may come and go, making it challenging to diagnose unless they can be reproduced in the dental office.

Below are a few examples of causes of jaw pain:

Grinding And Clenching Leads To Teeth And Temporomandibular Joint (Tmj) Pain

On occasion a patient can experience jaw pain or tiredness in the mornings. Night long grinding can cause muscle fatigue and muscle pain when you wake up. The pain subsides throughout the day. Pain can be on one side or both sides of your jaw. Twenty percent of night grinder patients are day grinders as well. Most of those who grind during the day are not aware of it. These individuals can have pain throughout the day. 

Sometimes long-term grinding can cause damage to the TMJ and surrounding areas which can lead to long term pain.

Grinding over an extended period of time can also cause damage to the top surfaces of your teeth deep enough into a tooth to cause severe temperature sensitivity and even pain. 

Those who clench can cause fractures in their teeth. These fractures can lead to an occasional sharp pain in teeth. Individuals with fractures are often not aware of it until there are enough fractures for the part of the tooth to break off. 

Other habits, which resemble grinding, are excess chewing of gum, and nail biting.

Grinding and clenching tendencies have a very easy solution. Symptoms can be prevented or reduced with a night guard provided by your dentist. Over the counter night guards do NOT have the same benefit. Although an over-the-counter nightguard may prevent damaging teeth during grinding it does not have the same benefits to the TMJ and can even lead to more pain and damage of joints. In some severe cases patients need to be referred to a dentist whose entire practice is devoted to treatment of TMJ and pain.

Dental Problems Such As Dental Decay

Dental decay can cause severe temporary sensitivity and pain in the jaw. Everyone is different. Some will experience pain with the smallest of cavities while most will not experience pain until the decay has hit the nerve. Patients tell me they know they do not have cavities because they do not feel any pain. In fact, in most cases if you feel pain in the tooth it could mean that it has hit the nerve and now you likely need a root canal. 

Gum infections can often be painful in your jaw as well. Usually, a patient experiences swelling and heat in their gums. The treatment could be a simple dental cleaning.

Dental Problems Such As Infections

Sinus infections
Sinus infections due to a recent flu or cold can sometimes cause an upper tooth ache or jaw pain. If you have a recent cold and one or both sides of your upper jaw hurts after the cold, make sure you do not have a sinus infection. One way to tell is if your mucus is yellow or green. In this situation contact your physician.

Ear infections
Ear infections can often feel like dental pain. As a matter of fact most often Ear/Nose/Throat (ENT) specialists will refer a patient to a dentist if the doctor rules out ear and sinus infections. If you think you have a toothache with altered hearing or loss of balance, you should contact your physician first.

Otherwise, if you have shooting throbbing pain around a tooth with hot or cold sensitivity contact your dentist. 

Note: With any infection there is a chance of fever and swelling of lymph nodes. Most lymph nodes are right below the site of infection. If you have an enlarged lymph node mid face or in front of your face it is likely from a tooth.

Tumor or Cyst:
Often a cyst can form around a variety of structures in the mouth. Sometimes they form around the head of wisdom teeth or teeth that have not fully erupted. These cysts can go on for years without the patient noticing. Otherwise, there may be some pressure pain in the wisdom teeth area.

Other times cysts can form in the mouth in different areas, some between teeth, others in the jaw. Usually, it is associated with remnants of teeth or tissue being left either during formation of teeth and jaw or during an extraction. Often these are associated with pain as well as shifting of teeth.

There are many classifications of tumors. Many books have been written about this subject. It is too big of a topic to cover here. Certainly, there are versions of tumors that can cause pain.

Wisdom Teeth:
Cysts can form around wisdom teeth due to a condition called odontogenic cysts. Wisdom teeth, also known as third molars, typically emerge during the late teenage years or early twenties. However, they often encounter various complications during their eruption process. One such complication is the development of cysts.

Odontogenic cysts are fluid-filled sacs that form within the jawbone or soft tissues surrounding the impacted wisdom teeth.

Can Wisdom teeth cause pain on one side of the mouth? The simple answer is yes. As a matter of fact, it is unlikely that you will have pain on both sides at the same time.

When partially erupted wisdom teeth are infected, pericoronitis is the very painful result. Bacteria can travel down the side of the tooth leading to an infection. The infection balloons up leading the tissue above it to tighten around the tooth and not allow the infection out. Relief is only achieved when the tissue is cut to let the infection out. Antibiotics can provide relief, but it takes too long to take effect.

Types of Pain:

Sharp or sudden jaw pain: Sudden jaw pain is a result of direct irritation of a nerve. Sources of such pain include deep decay close to the nerve, muscle fatigue of the jaw muscles, damage to the TMJ, Herpetic lesions sitting on ends of nerves and an impacted wisdom tooth applying pressure on adjacent teeth, and an infection near the heads of an unerupted wisdom tooth.

Dull or lingering pain: This form of pain is generally caused by irritation of a generalized area and not a specific site.  Such sources include sinusitis, gum disease,ear infection, and an infection of the wisdom tooth affecting the surrounding area.

Why the Jaw hurts on one side:

It is unlikely that the pain will be on both sides of the face at the same time. It is unlikely that wisdom teeth will hurt on both sides, or that gum or teeth infections are on both sides.  Most likely cause of jaw hurting on one side is deep decay on a tooth , fracture of a tooth or an impacted wisdom tooth that has become infected.

Inner cheek pain: Pain on the inner cheek can be caused by accidental cheek biting, herpetic lesions, and aphthous ulcers. Aphthous ulcers are caused by trauma to the cheek area leading to the body’s defense mechanism to kill all the surrounding tissue in order to grow new fresh tissue. 

How To Address Jaw Pain And Find Relief

If you have jaw pain, see your dentist for an evaluation. Most of these cases can easily be diagnosed with an x-ray and exam and treated. This post is not meant to allow you to diagnose yourself from home. Early diagnosis is crucial. We are the Scripps Ranch Dentist located on the corner of Scripps Ranch Boulevard and Mira Mesa Blvd. If you have jaw pain, contact us at (858) 271-1010 today.