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Painful Jaw Disorders

We use our jaws every day for talking and eating, but we tend to take them for granted unless something goes wrong. Persistent pain in the face, jaw, ear, in the neck and shoulder area—even some types of headache—can be symptoms of a common jaw problem known as a temporomandibular disorder (TMD).

These conditions are commonly referred to as TMJ (temporomandibular joint), which is the hinging joint that connects the lower jaw to the base of the skull. Everyone actually has two TMJs, located in front of the ear on either side of the head.

These joints normally allow the jaw to move smoothly up and down and side to side, permitting you to chew, swallow, and speak. Muscles attached to the jaw control its position and movement.

Temporomandibular disorders are common and result from problems with the function of the jaw, jaw joint, and associated muscles, says Jeffrey P. Okeson, DMD, professor and chairman of the Department of Oral Health Science in the University of Kentucky College of Dentistry, and director of the UK Orofacial Pain Program.

Your dentist can evaluate for the presence of a TMD and try to determine its cause. Some of the causes can be as simple as overusing the muscles (for example, clenching your teeth during the day when you are stressed, or grinding your teeth at night when you sleep). These are common sources of pain, and your dentist can help you control these activities, often with simple, conservative strategies.


The most common symptoms of a TMD are pain when opening and closing the mouth, pain while chewing, and clicking or locking of the jaw.

The muscles that move the jaw are the most common sources of pain. This is often felt as a dull, aching pain with tightness that limits full mouth opening.

Such pain is often short-lived and may resolve itself spontaneously. However, if you experience these symptoms for more than a few days, see your dentist to be evaluated.

For more information, go online to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research at, and search for numerous “TMJ” links.

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