What is lockjaw or TMJ?

Not being able to open and close your jaw is one symptom something might be off with your jaw joint.

The temporomandibular joint (try saying that five times fast), better known as the TMJ, is the hinge that connects your skull to your jaw. We use this joint all the time since it's critical to eating, talking, and making faces. It's an amazing joint which enables us to obliterate hard foods, while also forming the subtlest sounds of language. So when something goes wrong it is a pain on many different levels.

Clearing the air about "locked jaw" or "lockjaw"

Let's clear something up. Having an issue with your TMJ doesn't always result in "locked jaw." Locked jaw or lockjaw (everyday terms for trismus that) are often used as a catch-all for any issues with TMJ. One other thing to note is "lockjaw" is the term used for tetanus infections. But tetanus does not cause all issues with the jaw. 

What causes jaw problems?

There are a ton of things that can mess with your jaw. Here are a few things that might be causes that pain or discomfort in your jaw: 

  • Bruxism (or grinding to non-dentists) and clenching. Grinding often occurs during sleep so many people are unaware they do it. People who grind wake up with tight and sore jaw muscles. Left unchecked, this can also erode enamel, crate gaps between teeth, and hurt the TMJ joint. For many people, stress causes them to clench and grind their teeth.
  • Jaw or head injuries. Hitting your jaw in sports or in an accident can dislocate your jaw, or displace one of the disks.
  • Stress. Many people grind or clench their teeth when stressed.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis or osteoarthritis. These result in joint inflammation and degeneration. Most people think of arthritis in the hands and elbows, but it can affect the jaw joint as well.
  • Tetanus. Tetanus is a bacterial infection, and is often called "lockjaw" because one of the most common symptoms is jaw tightening. These infections can lead to serious health issues like having trouble swallowing or breathing. 

How do you know if you have issues with your jaw?

Not being able to move your jaw is only one sign that something is amiss. Here is a list of symptoms that signal something might be off with your jaw. Experiencing the symptoms below means that it's time to talk with a dentist.

  • Difficulty opening or closing your mouth
  • Pain or tenderness in your jaw joints
  • Aching pain in and around your ear
  • Difficulty with or pain while chewing or yawning
  • A clicking sound when using your jaw
  • A "grating" sensation when opening your mouth or chewing
  • Headaches

What to do if you think you have locked jaw?

If you're experiencing the symptoms from the list above, call your dentist. Your dentist can discuss with you what to do, or even refer you to a TMJ specialist. The professionals will be able to figure out what's the root cause of the issue, and help you take the right steps toward recovery. 

Have concerns with your jaw but don't have a dentist to connect with? Wally members get free consultations on if they have TMJ and what to do as part of their annual membership. Sign up today and also enjoy unlimited cleanings and whitenings while you develop a strategy for your jaw.

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