As you age, you may have noticed that your joints have gotten a little loud: creaking, crackling and popping when you get up from your desk or lie down to go to bed. You may expect these noises from your knees, hips and even your back, but what about when the noise comes from your jaw?
Many people experience a popping jaw, creaking, snapping or even grating (also known as crepitus) every day for many years and really don’t think twice about it because it isn’t painful. But while it might not be uncomfortable at the present time, a popping jaw can indicate that painful symptoms, discomfort and even limited use of your jaw are down the road.
Jaw popping is often an early sign of temporomandibular joint disorder (TMD), a collection of jaw disorders that can be excruciatingly painful and even life-altering for many individuals.
TMD affects the function of the temporomandibular joints (TMJs). These joints connect your lower jaw to the skull. When the TMJs become damaged, it can mean popping and pain.
Other symptoms of TMD include:
- Tenderness around the jaw joints/under the jaw
- Jaw soreness
- Facial swelling
- Difficulty opening the mouth
- Feeling as if your jaw will “lock” in an open or closed position
- Unexplained tooth pain
- Ear pain
- Headaches and migraines
- Neck pain
More than 10 million people are living with TMD, according to the National Institute of Craniofacial Research. Wear and tear on the jaw joints can develop due to clenching or grinding teeth, excessive gum chewing, biting of the nails, and other behaviors.
Arthritis is another contributor to jaw popping. The most common forms of arthritis include rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis, which can damage the TMJs and cause popping and other noises.
Injuries to the Jaw
Another cause of damage to the jaw joints (and a source of popping) is jaw injuries, which can happen due to a motor vehicle accident, fall, sporting injury or blow to the face. If this occurs, the jaw may become broken or knocked out of the joint (dislocated).
Myofascial Pain Syndrome
For some, the source of their jaw popping is myofascial pain syndrome, a chronic pain disorder that can affect some muscles’ trigger points. Myofascial pain syndrome is often caused by a muscle being contracted repeatedly over time. The condition frequently affects individuals who engage in repetitive jaw muscle movement activities, like some sports.
Myofascial pain syndrome symptoms in the jaw include pain in the jaw muscles that is persistent or worsens over time, sore or tender spots in the muscle, difficulty sleeping, and mood changes due to discomfort.
Sleep apnea is a widespread sleep breathing disorder characterized by pauses in breathing during sleep. There are two types of sleep apnea: obstructive sleep apnea triggered by physical obstructions to the airway, which blocks the flow of air into the lungs, and central sleep apnea, in which the part of the brain that should keep you breathing during sleep does not function properly. Sleep apnea’s signs and symptoms include daytime fatigue, headaches and migraines, mood disorders, unexplained weight gain, and difficulty concentrating.
Jaw popping can develop as a consequence of sleep apnea because you often clench your teeth and stress the jaw when you cannot breathe during sleep.
An Unbalanced Bite
When the bite is unbalanced, often referred to as an overbite, underbite or crossbite, the jaws constantly and subconsciously work to find their intended position. This stress on the jaw joint can cause damage and lead to popping or clicking. Bite malocclusion can be treated with orthodontics and other interventions.
For some, jaw popping can be a sign of an infection, particularly infections of the glands of the mouth. Other mouth infection symptoms can include dry mouth, a bitter or sour taste in the mouth, pain in the face or jaw, swelling, redness, and tenderness in the jaw. In this instance, you may need antibiotics or other interventions to treat the infections.
Treating a Popping Jaw
There are some over-the-counter treatments that you may find can help ease your noisy or painful jaw joint, including:
- Alternating ice or heat to the jaw
- Using NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), pain relievers and muscles relaxers
- Switching to a soft-food diet until the pain is relieved
- Practicing TMJ-specific exercises
- Wearing a splint or night guard
If your jaw is popping, snapping or cracking, don’t just write it off as nothing to worry about because it isn’t uncomfortable today. Popping jaw can mean a sign of discomfort and other issues on the horizon. Take the time to call us; we can find the noise source and help treat damage caused by any of these contributing factors. Call us now to schedule a consultation or exam.