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Jaw issues can be a real pain in the neck

Are you regularly bothered by neck pain? As many as 80% of people experience neck pain at some point in their lives.1 Did you know the problem may have started in your jaw? Here’s the surprising connection between your jaw and neck.

Pain from jaw disorders

The temporomandibular joints (TMJ) connect your lower jawbone to your skull. Numerous muscles attached to these joints and bones control the jaw movement that allows you to talk, chew, swallow, yawn and more. TMJ disorders can cause pain in jaw joints and muscles.

Because muscles in your neck are connected to your jaw, muscle tension that starts in your TMJ can move to your neck. This causes aches, spasms, tension and reduced flexibility in your neck.

Cause of TMJ disorders

While causes are not always clear, TMJ disorders can exist due to:

• Stress and anxiety that lead to jaw clenching and teeth grinding

• Jaw spasms and strain

• Misaligned TMJ disc

• Dislocated jaw

• Arthritis

• Injury

• Genetics


As many as 70% of neck problems may be related to a TMJ disorder.2 The reverse is true, as poor neck posture can cause jaw issues and pain.


Symptoms of TMJ issues

In addition to jaw and neck pain, symptoms of TMJ issues can include:

• Discomfort in the ear, face and shoulders

• Pain when chewing, swallowing, yawning and opening your mouth

• Clicking or grinding sound when opening your mouth or chewing

• Limited mouth opening

• Locking of the jaw joint(s) so you are unable to fully close your mouth

• A change in the way your upper and lower teeth fit together

• Headaches





Treatment for TMJ problems

Fortunately, for many people, symptoms will go away on their own. When they don’t, they can usually be relieved with self-care or other nonsurgical and reversible treatments. Some people, however, develop significant long-term symptoms.


You may be able to lessen pain if you:

• Perform stress-relief techniques — such as physical activity and deep breathing — that can reduce jaw clenching

• Eat soft foods

• Take over-the-counter pain relievers like acetaminophen or ibuprofen

• Avoid chewing gum, biting your nails and biting your lower lip

• Practice good posture

• Limit big jaw movements like yawning and singing

• Apply heat or ice packs 


Your dentist and physician can educate you about risk factors and behaviors that can cause TMJ disorders and pain. If pain persists, they may recommend:

• Physical therapy to improve joint motion and strengthen your jaw and neck

• Gentle jaw muscle stretching exercises

• Prescription medications to relieve anxiety and relax the muscles

• A dental bite guard (occlusal splint) to help relax the jaw muscles and reduce pain


In a small number of cases, when conservative methods have not helped, other procedures may be recommended. These include surgery, orthodontics and restorations — such as crowns and bridges. Before resorting to any major procedures, you should talk with your dentist about all of your options.                                          



The connection to teeth grinding and clenching

Many people with TMJ disorders also have bruxism (clenching or grinding teeth). Because TMJ disorders and bruxism share many common symptoms, diagnosing a specific cause for them can be complex.

Whether it occurs when you’re awake or asleep, bruxism can tire your jaw and lead to pain. Similarly to TMJ disorders, stress is one of the main causes of bruxism. Teeth grinding and clenching can also be caused by anger, fear, anxiety and a family history of bruxism.

As with TMJ issues, jaw and neck pain are among the main symptoms of bruxism, since those muscles tighten during teeth clenching and grinding. Other signs include:

• Headaches

• Damaged, loose or even lost teeth

• Painful or sensitive teeth

• Sleep disruption

• Grinding sounds while sleeping


Reducing your stress is important in treating teeth grinding and clenching, too. Your dentist or physician may also recommend wearing a custom-made night mouthguard. To help prevent TMJ disorders and bruxism, try to manage your stress levels.

If you have persistent pain or other symptoms of a TMJ issue or bruxism, see your dentist or physician to get relief. Contact your dental and medical benefits providers to see if the recommended treatment is covered.