It can be hard to know how to deal with jaw pain. After all, it might not seem like an emergency, but it can be bothersome, even disabling. Here’s a quick guide to addressing your pain: what you should do at home, how to identify your pain, and when you need to seek professional care because you suspect temporomandibular joint disorders (TMJ or TMD) or trigeminal neuralgia.

Man holds a warm warm cloth to his jaw, trying to reduce pain

Home Care for Jaw Pain

Most jaw pain is a dull ache in the jaw muscles. This may be related to TMJ, but that doesn’t always mean that it requires professional TMJ treatment, especially not at first.

You can treat jaw pain at home with several simple approaches:

  • Apply heat and/or cold
  • Try a soft diet
  • Reduce stress
  • Avoid opening mouth wide
  • Eliminate bad habits
  • Take over-the-counter pain medications

People often wonder whether heat or cold is better for jaw pain. The answer is that it depends on the nature of your pain. Heat is more effective for muscle pain. It not only relieves the pain: it can relax the muscles so that pain doesn’t recur right away. However, if you’re not sure that the jaw pain is in your muscles (more information below), cold might be better. Heat might worsen jaw pain related to inflammation of the joint or nerves. Cold will always lead to at least temporary local relief because it can numb the nerves.

You can also help control jaw pain at home by reducing the demands on your jaw. A soft diet can help you reduce chewing stress. Speaking of stress, many people bear their stress in their jaw, through jaw clenching and grinding. If stress is behind your jaw pain, relaxation techniques can help. It’s also a good idea to avoid opening your mouth too wide. Finally, you can help your jaw by eliminating habits that stress the jaw. Chewing gum, chewing nonfood objects, and smoking have all been linked to worsening jaw pain.

You can also care for your jaw pain by taking over-the-counter pain medications. Always follow label instructions unless you’ve been given different instructions by your doctor.

What Type of Jaw Pain Do I Have?

You can get better home care if you can recognize what type of jaw pain you have. Technically, this will require diagnosis by a doctor, but there are some factors you can consider to try to narrow down the type of pain. There are three main types of jaw pain that people experience:

  • Muscle pain
  • Joint pain
  • Nerve pain

Muscle pain is by far the most common. People usually describe this as “dull” or “aching” pain. It’s also more likely to be spread through the head and neck, and is associated with other symptoms like headaches and tinnitus.

Joint pain is concentrated at the joint, and it tends to worsen when you open and close your jaw. It is more likely to be associated with popping and clicking sounds in the joint.

Nerve pain is described by people using terms like “sharp,”  “electric,” or “stinging.” It’s likely to be the most severe pain, and it may be the most likely to start spontaneously and not respond to home care.

It’s possible to have more than one type of jaw pain, so don’t be surprised if your pain fits into several categories above.

When Should I Seek Professional Care for Jaw Pain?

Most people who have jaw pain don’t need to seek professional care. Even if you have TMJ,  you may be able to handle it at home without difficulty. However, you should seek professional care if pain:

  • Persists for seven days or more
  • Improves, but then returns
  • Worsens under home care
  • Makes it hard to sleep, eat, or work
  • Doesn’t respond to over-the-counter medication

All of these are signs that you might have a more serious problem. It’s time to talk to a professional, such as a TMJ dentist. If you’re in the Detroit area, please call (248) 480-0085 today for an appointment with Dr. Jeffrey S. Haddad at the Michigan Center for TMJ & Sleep Wellness.