But did you know that TMJ disorder is closely linked to lockjaw? Dr. Charles Sutera, FAGD, of Aesthetic Smile Reconstruction and a national oral health expert, weighs in on the various stress-related conditions which can affect your oral health.
It can interfere with your ability to communicate, maintain oral health, and even get enough nourishment.
In other words, it can be debilitating and downright overwhelming if you have lockjaw for any extended amount of time.
Lockjaw generally is a temporary problem that eventually relieves with proper treatment. However, I’ll tell you when your jaw is locked for even a few hours and you’re unable to eat or speak normally, that can seem like forever and it’s easy for panic to set in.
Causes of Lockjaw
Interestingly, lockjaw is most often caused by muscle strain, muscle spasm, or by a temporary dislocation of the jaw joint.
The reality of lockjaw is that it is often caused by several factors that build over time.
TMJ Disorder: Lockjaw is usually associated with temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ disorder) and a longstanding muscle strain.
This can happen when there’s a disharmony between the position of the jaw, muscles, and the TMJ.
If one side is out of balance with the other, then the muscles over time begin to overcompensate. As tension builds over time, the muscles and ligaments of the jaw become strained.
Just like a bodybuilder lifts weight until the muscles are so fatigued they cannot lift another repetition, a similar process happens with the jaw. The tension reaches a point of critical fatigue where the muscles lock up temporarily until they have a chance to rest. That is the most common cause of lockjaw.
Inflammation: If there is an injury to the jaw, such as a blow to the face or a motor vehicle accident, what happens? Inflammation and swelling occur. When the tissues around the jaw are swollen, the jaw function is limited by the fluid around the TMJ.
Think of running on land versus trying to run in the ocean. Fluid limits mobility. The same concept happens when there is swelling around the jaw. The swelling, or fluid, limits the mobility of the jaw.
Wisdom teeth: Wisdom teeth erupting in poor positioning can create lockjaw for two reasons. The wisdom teeth can push on the jaw and interfere with its path of motion, or the wisdom teeth can create swelling from an infection that limits the movement of the jaw joint.
Dislocation of the TMJ: If you’ve ever opened your mouth really wide to take a bite of something, heard a pop, and then had a difficult time closing your mouth, that is most likely dislocation of the temporomandibular joint. The top of the jaw sits in a socket on either side of the head to form the TMJ. Typically, the ligaments of the TMJ maintain the jaw in the socket. However, sometimes the ligaments can be stretched too far and the head of the jaw can temporally pop out of the socket.
When the jaw dislocates, the most common symptom is the jaw locking in the open position until the jaw is moved back into place.
Tetanus: Tetanus is a serious bacterial infection, and often the first symptoms of tetanus is: yes you guessed it…lockjaw. It affects the muscles and the nervous system throughout the body, causing them to tighten and contract.
Tetanus is most often associated with animal bites, burns, cuts, wounds, insect bites, tattoos, piercing, and injection of drugs.
Possible Warning Signs
Since the development of lockjaw is most often associated with worsening symptoms of TMJ dysfunction, let’s talk about the symptoms that you can look out for that may signal a developing lockjaw problem.
Some common symptoms that arrive in tandem with lockjaw are:
- Jaw popping or jaw clicking
- Clenching the teeth
- Fatigue when chewing, speaking, or yawning.
- The top and bottom teeth feel like they don’t fit together well
- Facial pain
- Earaches or ear ringing
What to Do if Your Jaw Locks
If you are at home and trying to find relief from lock jaw, here’s what you can do:
- Apply a warm compress and massage the muscles of the jaw, several times a day, so that it soothes and relaxes the muscles.
- Maintain good posture during the day
- Limit psychological stress as best you can, and be mindful if you are clenching your jaw excessively from stress
- Take magnesium and calcium-rich foods or supplements
- Take anti-inflammatory medications like naproxen or ibuprofen every 4 hours to reduce inflammation
- You should also try and practice jaw stretching exercises 2 to 3 times per day
- Stay hydrated
Should You Go To the Dentist?
If your lockjaw is persisting for more than a day or two, or is happening more and more frequently, you should consult with your dentist, who may refer you to a TMJ specialist. The TMJ specialist will evaluate your jaw, teeth, and joint to determine a cause for the lock jaw.
Typically, treatments can permanently prevent lockjaw from occurring. Common treatments include removable oral appliances called orthotics, balancing the bite, orthodontics, physical therapy, and/or botox to help relax the muscle tension.