What to do if your jaw is locked open

A temporomandibular disorder (TMD) can be a painful and sometimes confusing condition. Its symptoms, like jaw pain and stiffness, headache, and jaw popping may come and go, or get better and worse, without warning. New symptoms may develop and old ones go away. This makes it a difficult condition to diagnose and to manage, especially if you’ve never seen a medical provider who focuses on orofacial pain and TMD.

Of all of the uncomfortable symptoms of TMD, perhaps none are so alarming as a locked jaw. Imagine being in the middle of a workday, or a lunch out with friends, when you suddenly cannot close your jaw.

In fact, this is often when this troubling symptom will arise. Excessive use of the jaw, stress, and clenching can interfere with proper jaw function, and the joint may become out of place. This leads to a temporary inability to open or close the mouth.

A person who already has an inflamed or irritated temporomandibular joint (TMJ) due to TMD has an increased risk of experiencing a locked jaw, putting them in a painful and frightening position where they simply don’t know what to do next.

Why does the jaw lock up?

The temporomandibular joint (TMJ), like any joint, is susceptible to stress and injury. This may happen as a result of:

  • Overuse and misuse, such as chewing a lot of gum, talking for long periods, eating chewy, hard foods
  • Clenching the jaw or grinding the teeth, whether consciously or unconsciously — and often, simply using a bite guard is not enough
  • Mouth breathing, usually from nasal congestion resulting from a cold or allergies
  • Stress, which demands more of the entire body and takes a toll on the joints and muscles
  • Nutritional deficiencies, which deprive the bones and joints of vitamins and minerals they need for proper function
  • Arthritis, which can cause joint stiffness and swelling
  • Exposure to excessive heat or cold — changes in weather can affect the TMJ in many ways
  • Accidents and injuries that may damage the muscles, tendons, and bones in the face and jaw — If you ever experience a blow to the face or head, seek medical attention right away


If any of these factors occur, the TMJ may become misaligned, inflamed, or swollen. While your jaw may be able to handle some minor stress and repair itself, ongoing stress or injury to the TMJ can eventually reach a critical point that causes the jaw to simply stop moving. This is what ultimately causes the jaw “locking,” making it unable to move.

My jaw is locked open – what do I do?

Unfortunately, jaw locking often happens when we’re already busy, stressed, and simply don’t have time for this scary complication. It may happen after a busy morning at work, while you’re in an important lunch meeting with lots of eating and talking, or when you’re particularly stressed about something in your life and may be grinding or clenching more than usual.

Do your best to not panic.

First things first: try to relax your body and muscles. Take slow deep breaths in through the nose and out through the mouth. If you can, get to a quiet room and practice calming exercises such as deep breathing or guided imagery.

Put heat on the jaw right away.

A heating pad on the face, preferably with moist heat, can help loosen and relax it. Hold the heat on for several minutes before you try to move the jaw. At  this point, it may be able to move on its own again.

Try gentle movement from side to side.

Slowly and gently try slight sideways movements of the jaw. This may help it move back into its proper place, allowing it to move up and down again.

Call a medical provider who treats TMD and orofacial pain.

If you’ve gotten your jaw moving again, great. But your locked jaw is your body’s way of telling you that you need to treat your TMD and restore your TMJ to health — or you could end up with more pain and a locked jaw again in the future. The doctors at MedCenter TMJ will see patients who have all stages of TMD, from mild to severe cases.

The difference between a locked jaw and lockjaw

It’s worth noting that a locked jaw and “lockjaw” are very different conditions that require different medical care.

Tetanus, an infection that results from a bacterium called Clostridium tetani, is a serious condition that can sometimes be confused with TMD. Clostridium tetani is nearly everywhere in the natural environment, including the soil. That’s why the most well-known way of becoming infected is by stepping on a rusty nail or having a dirty wound.

The most common symptom of tetanus is lockjaw. In fact, tetanus is often referred to as “lockjaw,” because this symptom is its most well-known trait.

Thanks to vaccination, tetanus infections are much less common today. Still, however, tetanus infections do happen. It’s important to know the difference between lockjaw, which is potentially life-threatening, and a locked jaw from TMD — which can be extremely painful and frightening, but is usually treatable and not life-threatening.

Symptoms of tetanus (lockjaw) include:

  • Jaw cramping
  • Stiffness throughout the body
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Headache
  • Fever and/or sweating
  • Muscle tightening and spasms
  • Rapid heart rate

If left untreated, tetanus can lead to pneumonia and breathing difficulties. Up to 20 percent of tetanus infections are fatal. Don’t assume that an injury that occurred a couple of weeks ago won’t be a problem: the incubation period for tetanus is 10 to 14 days, and may be as high as 21 days.

A locked jaw from TMD, however, will usually be limited to a feeling of being unable to move the jaw and the pain associated with that. It may be brought on by stress, excessive chewing and talking, or the other causes listed above. There should be no fever, sweating, or cramping or pain in other muscles in the body. If you are at all concerned about the possibility of tetanus, seek medical care right away.

Don’t let a locked jaw happen to you — get treatment for your TMD before it gets worse. Contact MedCenter TMJ today to set up your appointment.

Original Source: https://www.medcentertmj.com/?p=3305

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