Temporomandibular joint disorder or TMJ has become better recognized in the past decade thanks to more research and better treatment. Most recognize symptoms like jaw clicking, frequent headaches, and even vertigo. Even with increased recognition, however, those suffering from TMJ still have room to be surprised by symptoms. The temporomandibular joint is connected to a complex set of of mechanisms in the skull, so when it malfunctions, the effects of this can be felt in a variety of ways, which is why symptoms can vary between patients.

Lockjaw is one of those symptoms. Though many associate TMJ with lockjaw, most won’t actually experience it. If you do, however, there are several helpful things you should understand.

man holds the side of his face due to jaw pain

What Is Lockjaw?

As with most things, it’s best to start with the basics. Although TMJ has been known to cause lockjaw, referred to medically as trismus, they are not the same thing. At its most basic level, lockjaw is reduced jaw mobility, usually when opening and closing the mouth, that is caused by muscle spasms. This is not to be confused with a locked jaw, which is related to the joint rather than a muscle.

Your two temporomandibular joints connect your jawbone to the skull. This connection is complex and delicate, requiring a wide range of motion. The relationship between the joint and the mandible requires both joints to function as one unit rather than independent of one another. You can move your jaw side to side, up and down, and back and forth, motion which is enabled by a disk of cartilage that sits between the two bones of the joint, facilitating smooth movement.

However, when TMJ is involved, that disc sometimes comes out of place. This displacement is fairly common, but ligaments in the jaw will pull the disc back into place. This slipping back into place is what causes the popping or clicking noise you experience. If the ligaments can’t pull the disc back, locked jaw can occur. When the disc that enables jaw movement is out of place, the jaw can become stuck open or closed.

How Is Locked Jaw Treated?

If locked jaw occurs, it’s important not to panic. Although the discomfort and pain caused by this condition can certainly be disconcerting, making sharp, panicked movements can cause more damage to the joint. Your first priority is to calmly try to unstick your jaw by massaging the muscles just above the jaw bone until it relaxes. It’s also important to try and take deep breaths. High levels of anxiety can actually cause the condition to worsen, so trying to relax as much as possible can be a benefit.

If this doesn’t work, the next step is to apply heat or cold to the jaw muscles to try to get them to soften. Whatever you do, avoid applying force. Although this may dislodge the jaw, it can also lead to serious jaw trauma. When you’ve managed to unstick your jaw, you should schedule a dentist appointment as soon as possible. Seeking out a dentist that specializes in treating TMJ can help to mitigate symptoms and alleviate pain. Many drug-free options are available that have been known to help, such as a custom-crafter mouth splint, which helps to position the jaw so that it can begin to heal itself.

TMJ dentist Dr. Adam Hahn in Columbia, SC has experience helping people with all stages and types of TMJ. They can help you, too. Please call (803) 781-9090 or email Smile Columbia Dentistry today to schedule an appointment with either of our dentists.