​Lockjaw Is No Laughing Matter: What You Need to Know About TMJ Disorder (Trismus) by Charles Sutera, DMD, FAGD

​Lockjaw Is No Laughing Matter: What You Need to Know About TMJ Disorder (Trismus)

It’s often used as a funny storyline in hospital shows, but lockjaw (trismus) can be incredibly scary when it happens to you or your child. Lockjaw affects at least 5 to 12 percent of the population. It can interfere with your ability to communicate, maintain oral health and even get enough nourishment. 

Lockjaw generally is a temporary problem. However, I’ll tell you when your jaw is locked for even a few hours and you’re unable to eat or speak normally, that can seem like forever and it’s easy for panic to set in.

How Do You Get Lockjaw?

Lockjaw is usually caused by muscle strain, muscle spasm, a temporary dislocation of the jaw joint or tetanus.

  • TMJ Disorder: Temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ disorder) can happen when there’s a disharmony between the position of the jaw, muscles and the TMJ. If one side is out of balance from the other, then the muscles over time begin to overcompensate. As tension builds over time, the muscles and ligaments of the jaw become strained.
  • Inflammation: If there is an injury to the jaw, such as a blow to the face or a motor vehicle accident, inflammation and swelling occurs. When the tissues around the jaw are swollen, the jaw function is limited by the fluid around the TMJ.
  • Wisdom Teeth: Wisdom teeth erupting in poor positioning can create lockjaw for two reasons. The wisdom teeth can push on the jaw and interfere with its path of motion, or the wisdom teeth can create swelling from an infection that limits the movement of the jaw joint.
  • Dislocation of the TMJ: If you’ve ever opened your mouth really wide to take a bite of something, heard a pop and then had a difficult time closing your mouth, that is most likely dislocation of the temporomandibular joint. When the jaw dislocates, the most common symptom is the jaw locking in the open position until it’s moved back into place.
  • Tetanus: Tetanus is a serious bacterial infection, and often the first symptoms of tetanus is lockjaw. It affects the muscles and the nervous system throughout the body, causing them to tighten and contract. Tetanus is most often associated with animal bites, burns, cuts, wounds, insect bites, tattoos, piercing and injection of drugs.

Can You Feel TMJ Developing?

Since the development of lockjaw is most often associated with worsening symptoms of TMJ dysfunction, there are some common symptoms that arrive in tandem with lockjaw:

  • Earaches or ear ringing.
  • Headaches.
  • Jaw popping or jaw clicking.
  • Clenching the teeth.
  • Fatigue when chewing, speaking or yawning.
  • The top and bottom teeth feel like they don’t fit together well.
  • Facial pain.

What Can You Do If Your Jaw Locks?

If you are trying to find relief from lock jaw, here’s what you can do:

  • Apply a warm compress and massage the muscles of the jaw, several times a day, so that it soothes and relaxes the muscles.
  • Limit psychological stress and be mindful if you are clenching your jaw excessively.
  • Take anti-inflammatory medications like naproxen or ibuprofen every four hours.
  • Stay hydrated.

Should You Go to the Dentist?

If your lockjaw persists for more than a day or two, or is happening more and more frequently, you should consult with your dentist, who may refer you to a TMJ specialist. Common treatments include removable oral appliances called orthotics, balancing the bite, orthodontics, physical therapy and/or Botox to help relax the muscle tension.

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Julie Rose
How awful! Helpful, thanks.
Elisa Schmitz
My goodness, this happened to one of my kids. So scary. Thanks for shedding light on this misunderstood condition, Charles Sutera, DMD, FAGD !

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