Jaw clicking (or popping) is a common occurrence that affects millions of people worldwide. It’s usually harmless, but if it’s causing you pain or affecting your face in other ways, it’s best to visit a dentist to rule out any dangerous underlying issues.
In this article, we explore everything you need to know about jaw clicking: why it happens, related signs and symptoms, and treatment options to help you get relief.
Why does my jaw click?
Jaw clicking is caused by a condition called temporomandibular disorder (TMD), also known as temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJD). It’s a malfunction that can be caused by issues with your jaw muscles, nerves, or your temporomandibular joints—the two joints that connect your jawbone to your temporal bones on each side of your skull.
TMD has a variety of potential causes. It can occur if you chew too much gum, regularly bite your fingers, grind your teeth, clench your jaw too much, thrust your jaw outwards a lot, or have a habit of biting your lips and cheeks. These actions can wear down your temporomandibular joints, resulting in a clicking or popping sound when you move your jaw in certain directions.
This condition affects about 10 million Americans—roughly 2.5% of their population. It isn’t clear how many Australians are affected by TMD, but the problem tends to run in families, and women are more likely to be affected than men.
Should I get treatment for my jaw clicking?
While jaw clicking can feel and sound a little strange, for most people, the condition isn’t an issue. But if you experience any of the following symptoms, you should consider talking to dentist:
- The clicking is painful
- Your jaw is tender
- Your face is swollen
- You have difficulty opening your mouth
- Your jaw becomes locked in place
- You struggle to eat
- You have headaches, toothaches, neck aches, or earaches
Again, while TMD usually isn’t a problem for most people, it can indicate an underlying medical condition that needs to be addressed. These include:
- Injury to your jaw, such as a break or dislocation (you’re highly likely to know if this is the case)
- Infection of the jawbone. This can be caused by untreated dental cavities, which can lead to serious health issues.
- Myofascial pain syndrome. This is caused by muscle tension, fatigue, or spasm in the masticatory muscles—the muscles that allow you to chew food.
- Teeth misalignment (malocclusion). This can be an overbite, underbite, crossbite, or other issues.
- Sleep apnea. Studies have shown a possible link between TMD and sleep apnea1, so if you’re a loud snorer who is tired all of the time, you may want to seek treatment.
- Tumour (ameloblastoma). This is an extremely rare tumour that can form near your wisdom teeth or molars, which can affect your jaw movement and cause clicking.
How to stop jaw clicking
If you’re suffering from any of the issues mentioned above, such as jaw pain, difficulty opening your mouth, or trouble chewing, we strongly recommend that you talk to your dentist about the issue. They can help to diagnose the problem and recommend potential treatments.
Medical treatments for jaw clicking
A dentist can help in a couple of different ways:
- Dental diagnosis. The dentist may ask you to take x-rays to examine your teeth and jaw. This can help them to identify jaw injuries, or teeth malocclusions such as a problematic overbite.
- TMJ surgery. As a last resort, and after you’ve exhausted the potential doctor treatments explored below, your dentist may recommend TMJ surgery to reconstruct your jaw. For more information, check out our comprehensive guide on surgery for TMJ.
If the dentist believes that the issue is outside of their field, they may refer you to a doctor or other practitioner who can recommend alternative treatments. When diagnosing the issue, a doctor may ask you to complete a CT scan to provide detailed images of the bones that make up your temporomandibular joints. They may also recommend an MRI scan, which can reveal problems with the joint’s disk or surrounding tissue. These techniques can lead them to an effective solution, such as:
- Trigger point injections. The practitioner will inject a numbing agent into the face muscles, to improve circulation, release muscle tension, and alleviate tenderness2.
- Radio wave therapy. A Rife machine or other tool is used to send radio waves through your temporomandibular joints and surrounding tissues, which can help to increase blood flow in the area, and reduce your pain.
- Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS). An electrical pulse is sent to your temporomandibular joints using a TENS machine, which can relax your muscles and stimulate the release of endorphins, which alleviates jaw pain.
Home remedies for jaw clicking
If your jaw clicking doesn’t seem painful enough to seek treatment, or a medical professional has confirmed that it isn’t a major problem, there’s plenty of home remedies that can help to alleviate pain. These include:
- TMJ exercises. Certain clicking jaw exercises can help to alleviate jaw clicking and pain. There’s goldfish exercise, chin tucks, resisted mouth opening, and plenty more. Check out our full list in our TMJ exercise article.
- Ice or heat packs. Hot or cold temperatures can help to relax the muscles surrounding your temporomandibular joints, which helps to reduce the pain.
- Anti-inflammatory drugs. Ibuprofen, aspirin, and certain muscle relaxants can reduce inflammation in your face muscles and temporomandibular joints, which prevents your nerves being stimulated, and reduces pain.
- Eat soft foods. Tough foods like steak, apples, nuts, and crusty bread put pressure on our jaw joints and can be painful. Try to stick to soft foods like smoothies, potatoes, eggs, and salmon to ease your TMJ symptoms.
- Wear a dental guard at night. If you’re a nightly teeth grinder, this can be a major cause of jaw clicking and pain. A dental guard can help to reduce this issue.
- Improve your posture. If your head is a little too forward in your natural posture, the condyles of your jaw sit deeper in their sockets, which can cause TMD. Improving your entire posture (including your back and shoulders) can help to fix the issue. You might also consider visiting a physiotherapist for help, as bad posture can be tough to fix.
- Relaxing exercises. Stress causes us to tense our muscles, which eventually become tight and knotted. If there’s a little too much stress in your life, and you’re struggling to fix its root cause, doing something relaxing can reduce the tension in your jaw and relieve pain from TMJ. You can try any of the following:
- Mindfulness meditation
- Deep breathing
- Getting a massage
- Taking a warm bath
- Going for a jog
- Listening to soothing music
- A.E. Sanders, G.K. Essick, R. Fillingim, C. Knott, R. Ohrbach, J.D. Greenspan, L. Diatchenko, W. Maixner, R. Dubner, E. Bair, V.E. Miller, and G.D. Slade, 2013, Sleep Apnea Symptoms and Risk of Temporomandibular Disorder, Journal of Dental Research
- Trigger-Point Injections For TMD And Myofascial Pain Relief, Colgate