A pain in the neck can be a real medical problem or a euphemism for an annoying person, but for many sufferers, neck and jaw pain go hand in hand. Any part of the neck from the muscles, nerves or vertebrae can be affected and may cause discomfort or stiffness. Jaw pain can be the result of problems with the temporomandibular joints, which are the joints on either side of the head that are used during chewing and speaking.
Neck pain can come from poor posture, muscle strain from leaning or hunching for extended periods of time or injuries like whiplash. Nerve issues like stiffened disks, herniated disks or bone spurs are also causes. Rheumatoid arthritis, meningitis or cancer can also cause neck pain.
Pains in the jaw can be because of overuse and overextension, injuries, tooth problems or TMJ disorders. Some TMJ problems relate to injury, dislocation or arthritis. Injuries to the jaw include broken bones or a dislocation where the lower part of the jaw has moved out of its normal position at the joint.
Neck pain can present as stiffness or an inability to move the neck easily. Neck pain may be more likely as people age because of the repetitive wear and tear of life and the potential for arthritis.
Jaw pain can present with symptoms of a bite that feels crooked, problems speaking, problems closing the mouth, stiffness, bumps on the cheek or jawline or limited movement. The pain can also radiate to the ear or cause a headache.
Doctors can diagnosis the cause of neck pain by a simple set of questions about when the pain started, the location of the pain and if the pain is characterized as dull, sharp or shooting. Some cases require X-rays to look for bulging disks or bone spurs, CT scans for a cross-section view of the internal structures, MRIs to look at the spinal cord and nerves or an EMG to test how the nerves are functioning.
X-rays may be used if jaw pain is thought to result from a problem with the teeth. A CT scan looks at the bones in the joint to diagnose any TMJ or dislocation issues. A MRI can look at the disk in the jaw to determine if the problem is there.
Mild cases of neck pain are treated with over-the-counter remedies like an anti-inflammatory medicine and/or acetaminophen and moist heat or ice. Gentle stretching of the neck for 30-second increments can alleviate pain and stiffness. Severe pain may require prescription pain medication and sometimes a muscle relaxant.
Treatment for a broken jaw depends on how badly it is broken. A minor break may use pain medications and a liquid diet, while a severe fracture may need surgery and to be wired shut. TMJ treatments include painkillers, a bite guard or corrective dental treatment.
If neck pain causes numbness or loss of strength in the arms or hands, a shooting pain down to the shoulder or makes it impossible to touch the chin to the chest, seek immediate medical attention.
See a doctor if there is constant pain or tenderness in the jaw or it won’t open or close completely. Never attempt to correct the position of the jaw after a break or dislocation.