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Updated on January 23, 2023
7 min read

Tight Jaw Causes, Tips for Relief, and Prevention

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Why Does My Jaw Feel Tight?

There are many potential causes of a tight jaw. Your lifestyle, jaw disorders, and certain illnesses can all play a role in mild and severe jaw tightness.

Each side of your jaw has a joint (temporomandibular joint, or TMJ) and muscles that perform several tasks. Tight jaw joints muscles can affect chewing, yawning, speaking, and singing.1, 2

You may have jaw tightness that comes on suddenly. Alternatively, you may notice tension or low mobility in your jaw that persists over time. This can affect one or both sides of your jaw.

6 Potential Causes of a Tight Jaw

A tight jaw can have various causes, some of which might co-occur. Five significant causes of jaw tightness include:

1. Stress and Anxiety

Your jaw can tighten as a result of stress or anxiety. People’s bodies show stress in different ways, including tensing muscles. This includes the jaw muscles.

Stress and anxiety can also contribute to bruxism and TMJ disorders, which can tighten your jaw.

2. Excessive Grinding or Chewing

Many people engage in bruxism, an unconscious habit of clenching or grinding teeth. This can occur while you’re awake or asleep, and over time it can cause your jaw to stiffen or reduce mobility.

Bruxism can be a response to stress or anxiety, but it can have other causes, such as stimulant drugs and other underlying conditions.

Similarly, excessive chewing can overexert jaw muscles. Chewing gum, tough foods, and jaw exercise products can all cause a tight jaw. Take a break if you’ve recently chewed heavily and see if the stiffness subsides.

3. TMJ Disorders

Temporomandibular joint disorder (TMD) includes various conditions that affect the jaw joint. TMD symptoms include:

  • Jaw tightness or limited ability to open your mouth
  • Jaw pain
  • Clicking or popping sounds or sensations when moving your jaw

The causes of TMD aren’t entirely clear. Stress, personality type, and conditions such as arthritis can all be risk factors.

4. Arthritis

Arthritis (joint inflammation) can cause your jaw to stiffen and lose mobility. There are many forms of arthritis, but the two most common are:

  • Osteoarthritis — Most often affects older people and involves joint tissue degeneration.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis — When your immune system attacks your joints, causing pain and inflammation. Many people with rheumatoid arthritis have symptoms of TMD.3

5. Tetanus

Tetanus is a potentially fatal infection, also referred to as lockjaw. It can cause involuntary spasms in the neck, jaw, abdominal, and other muscles. These painful contractions can cause breathing difficulties.

Tetanus can be treated, but it’s best to prevent it through vaccination. Most people in the United States are vaccinated against tetanus.

6. Poor Posture

If you spend ample time sitting down looking at a screen, you may have rounded shoulders and a forward-arched neck. This poor posture can ultimately transfer tension to your jaw.

Forward carned jaw bad posture

Maintaining good posture and mobility in your neck, back, and shoulders may help relieve jaw tightness.

Other Causes

Other potential causes of jaw pain or stiffness include:

Some of these causes are relatively minor, but others can be life-threatening.

See a doctor if you notice severe symptoms, such as fever or visible changes in your jaw.

Other Symptoms Associated With Jaw Stiffness

If your jaw feels stiff or has a limited range of motion, you may also notice other symptoms, such as:

  • Persistent jaw pain
  • Pain while chewing
  • Tight neck muscles
  • Headache
  • Difficulty speaking or singing
  • Difficulty swallowing

The specific symptoms you experience may differ depending on the underlying cause. Tetanus, for example, can cause your neck and abdominal muscles to tense.

Less commonly, jaw stiffness may follow up with fever, visible jaw appearance differences, or severe pain. Again, if you notice these symptoms, see a doctor.

When to See a Dentist or Doctor

See your dentist if you have jaw stiffness that:

  • Interferes with your daily life
  • Doesn’t seem to get better with time

Don’t ignore the issue if it worsens or involves other severe symptoms. Your dentist can identify the cause of your tight jaw and provide the necessary treatment.

If you are in severe pain or have symptoms of tetanus, see a doctor as soon as possible.

Diagnosing a Tight or Painful Jaw

To determine the reason for your jaw pain or stiffness, your dentist or doctor will:

  • Physically examine your mouth and jaw
  • Ask you about your symptoms and any previous history of jaw issues
  • Conduct imaging tests, such as X-rays or CT scans

Various possible conditions may cause your jaw to tighten. Your dentist or doctor will want to ensure the root cause to determine the best treatment for you.

How to Relieve Jaw Tightness

Depending on the severity and cause of your jaw tightness, you can treat it at home. In other cases, lasting relief may require professional treatment.

Home Remedies

Some home remedies to relieve a stiff jaw include:

  • A heat pack or hot compress — Increases blood flow to the area.
  • An ice pack or cold compress — Decreases blood flow, reducing inflammation and providing a numbing effect.
  • Jaw exercises and stretches — Can increase your jaw’s pain-free range of motion.
  • Massaging the muscles of the jaw and face — Soothes the muscles.
  • Adjusting your diet — Stick to soft foods and avoid nutrient deficiencies.
  • Over-the-counter (OTC) medications — Medications like ibuprofen and acetaminophen (Tylenol) can reduce pain and discomfort. 
  • A mouthguard — Keeps your jaw in a better position or reduces damage from bruxism.

These home remedies can be considered a first-line defense against jaw pain, soreness, and tension. If they aren’t effective, it may be time to consult your dentist or doctor.

Professional Treatments

Professional treatment for a stiff jaw may be needed, especially if you have a more severe TMJ issue. Your doctor or dentist will likely recommend starting with less invasive treatments before considering surgery.

Non-Invasive Treatments

The following are the least invasive professional options for jaw relief:

  • Prescription medication — Prescription muscle relaxers and pain relievers may be more effective for your stiff jaw than OTC medication. However, these can also have unwanted side effects.
  • Physical therapy — A physical therapist can offer manual therapy, exercises, and instructions on alleviating jaw tightness with good posture.

Local Injections

If the above treatments aren’t effective, minimally invasive injections may be the next step. These include:

  • Hyaluronic acid, which is found in your body and can help regenerate tissue
  • Corticosteroids (anti-inflammatory medications)
  • Blood products like platelet-rich fibrin or plasma
  • Botox to partially paralyze overactive jaw muscles

TMJ Surgery

TMJ surgery is generally considered a last resort for jaw problems that haven’t experienced relief from other treatments. These procedures are irreversible and can have complications. 

TMJ surgeries include:

  • An injection of fluid into the joint to flush out damaged tissue (arthrocentesis)
  • Minimally invasive surgery using a small camera (arthroscopy)
  • Open-joint surgery, which can include a variety of invasive procedures to modify the jaw joint

Tips for Preventing Jaw Pain 

You can make jaw pain and stiffness less likely in the first place by doing the following:

  • Practice good posture — Keeping your head up and shoulders back can help prevent your jaw muscles from tensing.
  • Avoid overly hard or chewy foods — Eating foods that are difficult to chew can strain jaw muscles.
  • Maintain a healthy diet — Maintaining a diet rich in nutrient-dense whole foods will help you to avoid over- or under-exerting your jaw. It will also help you avoid nutrient deficiencies.
  • Reduce caffeine and alcohol intake — Both can dehydrate you, impairing muscle function.
  • Manage stress — Reduce or prevent jaw tension and bruxism by developing better ways to relax and reduce stress.
  • Avoid parafunctional habits — Nail biting, chewing the tongue, cheeks, or lips, and teeth clenching can all cause jaw pain.

Summary

Many people experience tension, tightness, or stiffness in the jaw. There are various causes, ranging from mild to severe.

A stiff jaw can interfere with daily life. It can affect how you speak, chew, yawn, and swallow. Fortunately, there are many ways to find relief, including home remedies and professional treatments.

Talk to your dentist or doctor if you have jaw pain or tension that affects your life or doesn’t improve with time.

Last updated on January 23, 2023
9 Sources Cited
Last updated on January 23, 2023
All NewMouth content is medically reviewed and fact-checked by a licensed dentist or orthodontist to ensure the information is factual, current, and relevant.

We have strict sourcing guidelines and only cite from current scientific research, such as scholarly articles, dentistry textbooks, government agencies, and medical journals. This also includes information provided by the American Dental Association (ADA), the American Association of Orthodontics (AAO), and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
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  2. Miller, Richard. "The Role of the Jaw in Singing." On the Art of Singing, Oxford University Press, 1996.
  3. Sodhi, Amandeep, et al. “Rheumatoid arthritis affecting temporomandibular joint.” Contemporary Clinical Dentistry, 2015.
  4. Silveira, A et al. “Jaw dysfunction is associated with neck disability and muscle tenderness in subjects with and without chronic temporomandibular disorders.” BioMed Research International, 2015.
  5. Warburton, Gary. "Internal Derangements of the Temporomandibular Joint." Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery for the Clinician, 2021.
  6. Ferneini, Elie M. "Temporomandibular Joint Disorders (TMD)." Journal of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery, 2021.
  7. Mienna, Christina Storm, et al. "Patients’ experiences of supervised jaw-neck exercise among patients with localized TMD pain or TMD pain associated with generalized pain." Acta Odontologica Scandinavica, 2019.
  8. Chęciński, Maciej et al. “Treatment of Mandibular Hypomobility by Injections into the Temporomandibular Joints: A Systematic Review of the Substances Used.” Journal of Clinical Medicine, 2022.
  9. Dimitroulis, G. "Management of temporomandibular joint disorders: A surgeon's perspective." Australian Dental Journal, 2018.
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