Jaw popping – or jaw clicking as some people describe it – can be a painful and annoying sensation. It’s believed to be caused by a malfunction in the temporomandibular joints (TMJ).
With jaw popping, there is usually a clicking sound that comes from the jaw, which occurs at the same time as the pain. The TMJ joints connect the jawbone to the skull and include one joint on each side. The hinge action on the joint allows us to talk, chew, and yawn.
It’s important to note that not all jaw clicking is due to a problem with the temporomandibular joints. There are cases where people hear a popping noise and feel an odd sensation when overextending the jaw. For example, when opening the mouth too wide while yawning, a popping jaw can occur. If you pop your jaw and there is no pain, it often means you have no reason to be concerned.
While jaw popping isn’t completely understood by medical officials, here we share what is known about its causes, symptoms, and treatment.
What Are the Causes of Jaw Popping?
This condition sounds odd to many people. Those who have never experienced it wonder what causes jaw popping.
There are several jaw popping causes, including those listed below:
- Erosion – when people frequently chew gum, bite their fingernails, grind their teeth, clench their jaw, thrust their jaw out, or bite their lip or cheek, it can lead to wear and tear on the joints. This wear and tear causes erosion.
- Arthritis – this common condition can damage the cartilage of the temporomandibular joint. For instance, rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis are known to impact the jaw. When there is a loss of cartilage, jaw movements don’t have good absorption in the joint socket.
- Broken or dislocated jaw – an injury that is severe can break or dislocate the jaw. Basically, the jaw joint becomes unhinged. A physical assault, a motor vehicle accident, a fall, sports injuries, or industrial accidents can cause a broken or dislocated jaw. This type of injury requires quick and proper treatment.
- Malocclusion of the teeth – this is the same as crossbite, overbite, underbite, open bite, or crowded teeth. Malocclusion of the teeth leads to misalignment, which can change a person’s facial appearance, cause biting of the inner cheeks or tongue, lead to discomfort when chewing, and cause speech problems.
- Myofascial pain syndrome – MPS is a chronic pain in the musculoskeletal system. When it’s in the jaw, it causes the jaw to pop or click. People with MPS have trigger points that are sensitive. These trigger points are particularly painful when pressure is applied to them. If someone has myofascial pain syndrome, they can experience worse pain by stretching the muscle, a smaller range of motion in the affected area, as well as difficulty sleeping.
- Sleep apnea – both obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) and central sleep apnea (CSA) can cause jaw popping. People who suffer from OSA often experience headaches, depression, and leg swelling. Those who have CSA tend to have a hard time swallowing; they can experience a change in speech patterns and generally feel weak.
- Infection – an infection in the salivary gland can cause jaw popping. The infection usually occurs inside the glands of the cheek, the glands below the jawbone, or the glands that are situated under the tongue. Some people with this type of infection are unable to fully open their mouth, which leads to the jaw clicking.
- Tumor – the jaw can be impacted by a tumor that develops in the lips, tongue, cheek, gums, the floor of the mouth, or hard or soft palate. When the tumor interferes with jaw movement, this is when there is a popping sensation.
Symptoms That May Accompany Jaw Clicking
There are cases where clicking may be the only symptom, but in other cases, there are various jaw-popping symptoms that can be involved.
The following list covers off the most common symptoms of jaw popping or clicking.
- Pain and discomfort
- Tenderness in the jaw or face
- Difficulty opening the mouth wide
- Difficulty eating
- Neck ache
- A toothache
- A headache
- Facial swelling
How to Treat Jaw Popping?
If you or someone you know wants to find out how to stop jaw popping, a proper diagnosis needs to be made first, then a doctor can suggest the best approach to solving the problem. Here we review the different jaw popping treatment options that doctors recommend based on the cause. These include both home remedies and medical treatments.
- Medications – some people are prescribed anti-inflammatory medications that may help relieve swelling and pain in the jaw and face.
- Heat and ice – using an ice pack on the jaw for about 15 minutes, followed by a warm compress for 10 minutes, can help relieve symptoms for some people.
- Avoid hard foods – raw vegetables or chewy foods can make the popping and other symptoms worse, so avoid eating such foods. Choose softer foods like yogurt and cooked vegetables. Food should be consumed in small bites so that there’s no need to open the mouth too wide. If you’re concerned about missing out on your favorite foods, some doctors report that after avoiding hard foods for a while, many jaw popping patients are able to eventually go back to harder foods, albeit slowly.
- Relax the jaw – when you keep the mouth open slightly, it leaves a space between the teeth that can help relieve pressure on the jaw.
- Manage stress – reducing stress can relieve jaw popping, especially if the problem has come from stress-related teeth grinding. Meditation, deep breathing exercises, and physical activity can help.
- Don’t overextend the jaw – avoid activities that open the mouth wide, including yelling, singing, or chewing gum.
- Maintain good posture – you can reduce facial misalignment by keeping a good posture.
- Physical therapy – massage and facial stretches can be helpful for some people who suffer from jaw popping. This should be discussed with a doctor first though.
- Use a nightguard – this can be recommended to prevent tooth grinding while sleeping. A nightguard or splint can also be used to treat malocclusion of teeth.
- Dental work – issues such as overbites and underbites that lead to jaw clicking can be addressed with dental work.
- Nerve stimulation – transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) is a procedure that uses electrical currents to help relax muscles in the face and jaw to relieve pain.
- Injections – some people with myofascial pain syndrome can receive injections in their trigger points that may bring some relief from symptoms.
- Ultrasound – applying heat to the joint with ultrasound may improve the mobility of the jaw and reduce or stop the pain.
- Laser or radio wave therapy – this is a treatment that stimulates movement and eases the pain in the jaw, mouth, and neck areas.
- Surgery – this last resort approach to treating jaw popping often depends on the underlying issue and how severe it is. Some potential surgeries include removing fluid from the joint (arthrocentesis), replacing or repairing the joint (open-joint surgery), or using very small surgical instruments to repair the joint (arthroscopy).
Jaw popping can be aggravating and painful, but it doesn’t have to dictate the quality of your life. With proper assessment and attention, many people who experience this sensation find ways to cope and recover from it. There are many different treatment options and the need for surgery is rare.