Running continues to become a more popular sport. And it seems like it’s not just that more people are running, it’s that people seem to be running longer and longer distances. Ultramarathons have become so popular that even Matthew Inman, the creative mind behind Internet sensation The Oatmeal, runs them and has even written a popular book about it.

But with more people running, there are also more reports of running-related problems, including jaw pain. If you are a runner who experiences jaw pain, there are many possible causes and it should be investigated because some of them are serious or even deadly.

Two men running in the mountains.

Deadly: Blocked Arteries, Angina, and Other Heart Problems

It might not seem like it, but jaw pain could be a sign that you’re experiencing cardiovascular problems. We know, running is supposed to be healthy for your heart, but there are three reasons why you might be suffering cardiovascular problems despite your running lifestyle: 1) (fried) chickens from your pre-running life coming home to roost, 2) genetic predisposition to heart problems, or 3) just unlucky.

As a result, you should have jaw pain during running checked out because it could be angina or blocked arteries, both of which could put you at increased risk for a heart attack (which might also be felt as jaw pain).

But why would you feel the pain in your jaw? This is actually more common than you might think: heart pain is felt in the jaw because of a phenomenon known as referred pain. In this condition, your body thinks pain in an unusual place (your heart) is coming from a place where pain is more expected (your jaw) because pain signals from the two locations travel on the same nerve.

Because of the potential risk, if you have jaw pain when running, you should talk to a doctor.

Serious: Tooth Infection

Infections in the mouth and jaw can be exacerbated by running. There are two main types of mouth infection that can cause jaw pain while running: infected teeth and gum disease.

Infected teeth occurs when oral bacteria bore through the different layers of your teeth to the internal chamber of the tooth. This infection can make your tooth more sensitive to pressure and temperature, and that makes your tooth hurt when you run.

Gum disease is when bacteria infect the space around your teeth. This can cause gum recession, which exposes the roots of your teeth, which are sensitive to temperature changes, and can hurt just from your normal breathing when you run. Gum disease can expose tooth roots over a long section of your jaw, which can cause widespread pain.

Both infections can serve as jumping-off points for bacteria to spread infection and other health effects through your body, so you should take them seriously.

Serious: TMJ

TMJ is short for temporomandibular joint disorder, a condition in which the joints in your jaw may be injured, displaced, or otherwise poorly functioning. It can also be caused by jaw muscles or teeth that just don’t work well with the jaw joints.

Running can be very hard on someone with TMJ. The high-impact exercise can jolt the temporomandibular joints, causing swelling and pain. It can also stress the jaw muscles, because the jaw itself has no support from below, so it’s only the muscles that are holding the jaw in place. It can also contribute to headaches and neck pain after running.

TMJ could also contribute to jaw pain because it makes you more likely to clench your jaw when running. Imbalance in the jaw can impact your core strength and balance, and clenching your jaw might be part of the way your body solves the problem. If you find yourself clenching your jaw while you run or do other types of exercise, it’s not enough to just try to relax: you should be tested to make sure your jaw is properly balanced.

If your visit to the doctor doesn’t reveal any possible heart issues, your next visit should be to a neuromuscular dentist, who can diagnose and treat TMJ in its early stages to prevent or reduce the risk that you’ll need surgical treatment later on.

Minor: Cold Ears

But not all causes of jaw pain are serious. Sometimes it’s just a minor issue like cold ears. When you’re out running, especially on a chilly winter morning, cold air can penetrate into your ears and chill the tissues of your jaw joints, resulting in discomfort. To treat this, just wrap your head or wear earmuffs.

If you think TMJ might be responsible for your jaw pain, please call (803) 781-9090 for an appointment with a Columbia, SC TMJ dentist at Smile Columbia Dentistry.