Lockjaw is the common term for temporomandibular joint disorder, or TMJ, that causes pain in the joint where the lower jaw meets the skull, according to the Mayo Clinic. The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, or NIDCR, estimates that 10 million Americans are affected. People with TMJ experience pain in the jaw, ear or face; problems chewing or with the bite; headache; difficulties opening or closing the mouth because the joint locks in place; or a clicking or grating sound when the mouth is moved. Injury, arthritis, or muscle aches from grinding the teeth are the most common causes of TMJ. Most of the time TMJ can be treated at home or with non-invasive medical intervention.
TMJ is often a temporary condition that goes away on its own without treatment, according to the Mayo Clinic. But there are some home treatments that can help ease the pain. Stretching exercises that target the jaw muscle or massaging the area can help. A doctor or physical therapist can teach a patient how to perform these exercises. Applying a warm, moist compress or ice pack to the side of the face can also help. Avoid the habits that trigger TMJ, such as clenching the jaw or grinding the teeth. To reduce the overuse of jaw muscles that may cause the pain, try eating soft food, cutting food into smaller pieces, avoiding sticky or chewy foods including gum, limiting wide yawns and singing.
Over-the-counter painkillers may be sufficient to treat the pain of TMJ but if not, a doctor can prescribe prescription painkillers, according to the Mayo Clinic. Some doctors also prescribe muscle relaxants for a few days or weeks to relieve pain. If the joint is inflamed, corticosteroids injected directly into the joint can help. Other doctors inject botulinum toxin into the jaw muscles to alleviate pain and research is under way to see if it can be useful, according to the NIDCR. Botulinum toxin has not been approved for this use by the FDA. Sometimes antidepressants or anti-anxiety drugs can relieve TMJ pain.
Some people have TMJ because they grind their teeth in their sleep, in which case a bite guard can sometimes help, according to the Mayo Clinic. The bite guard is a plastic device inserted into the mouth over the upper or lower teeth to prevent them from meshing together while a person sleeps. This is not a good option for sleep apnea patients, whose condition can be worsened by the guard, according to the Mayo Clinic. For other people, TMJ is aggravated by anxiety and stress and it can be helped with psychotherapy, according to Mayo Clinic. This can include help with changing stress-related habits like clenching the jaw and learning relaxation techniques.
Sometimes TMJ is the result of a bad bite, and it can be fixed with dental procedures to improve the bite, according to the Mayo Clinic. This may involve grinding down uneven teeth for a more even bite, replacing missing teeth, or replacing fillings or crowns that are throwing the bite off. However, these treatments have not been proven to work and can sometimes worsen the pain, cautions the NIDCR. There is also a procedure called arthrocentesis in which a needle is inserted into the joint to deliver fluid into the joint. The joint is flushed clean of any debris that might interfere with its functioning.
Surgery should be avoided if at all possible, according to the NIDCR. It involves repairing or even replacing the entire joint with an artificial joint. But the surgery is controversial and no long-term research has proven that it works or that it is safe, warns the NIDCR. Also, implants can cause severe pain, permanent damage to the jaw, and have sometimes failed to work properly or come apart, reports the NIDCR.