Nearly everyone has experienced jaw pain at some point in their life. But for some people, that jaw pain is serious enough and happens often enough that it crosses the line into TMJ territory. But how do you know if your jaw pain is normal, or a symptom of the disorder? Ultimately, the only one who can make this call is a trained medical professional, such as an experienced TMJ dentist. However, there are some signs you can keep an eye out for.
Normal Jaw Pain
There are a few circumstances under which jaw pain can be expected even in people with healthy temporomandibular joints.
- You’re stressed. If you experience a lot of stress, you may unconsciously clench your jaw and maybe grind your teeth, either while awake or asleep (or, in some cases, both!) This is called bruxism and while it isn’t necessarily a sign of TMJ, it can contribute to the development of the disorder, as well as cause wear and tear damage to your teeth.
- You have poor posture. Thought it may seem like the neck is a totally different ballgame than the jaw, the two are more connected than you’d think. Your posture impacts how your skull sits on top of your spinal column, which in turn can impact how you hold your jaw. A poor posture can force your jaw to work harder than it should, leading to pain.
- You’re eating difficult food. Just like any joint, your temporomandibular joint can become stressed if it is overused. If you’ve been eating foods that require a lot of intense chewing, or have been chewing a lot more than normal, you may experience some jaw pain as a result. (That’s why many people experience jaw pain on Thanksgiving.)
These things can all cause mild jaw pain in people with a perfectly healthy jaw, but that pain should pass once the cause has been addressed. If your jaw pain doesn’t pass, it may be a symptom of TMJ and should be addressed.
TMJ-Related Jaw Pain
For those with TMJ, jaw pain isn’t just limited to extreme cases. Instead, chewing normal foods or even speaking can result in long-lasting pain, and even if jaw pain stops for a while, TMJ sufferers know it will be back before much longer.
Your jaw pain might be serious if it is accompanied by other TMJ symptoms, such as popping or clicking sounds, headaches or migraines, tingling fingers, or ear pain or stuffiness. Even if you experience what is generally considered to be normal jaw pain, keep an eye out for symptoms like these which might indicate a larger problem.
Also, if your jaw pain recurs often or sticks around for a long time, it’s likely to be related to TMJ. The average person who chews too much caramel or clenches their teeth throughout final exam week won’t experience their jaw pain for very long. If you find that you’re consistently waking up with a sore jaw or experiencing discomfort after meals, you should speak to your doctor or dentist.