In many cases, facial pain can be traced to a relatively simple cause, such as a toothache, headache or chewing gum for too long. But in some cases, the painful and radiating aches are linked to more serious conditions. In fact, understanding the exact cause of face and jaw pain is necessary for proper treatment and prevention.
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Medically speaking, clenching or grinding the teeth is referred to as “bruxism.” Whether you simply clench your top and bottom teeth together or slide them back and forth across each other, the behavior puts unnecessary stress on the muscles and tissues of the jaw. Eventually, this added stress leads to tenderness and pain around the jaw and cheeks, along with headache and ear pain. Although no exact cause has been linked to the condition, MedlinePlus suggests a relationship between bruxism and daily stress.
Myofascial Pain Dysfunction
Myofascial pain dysfunction, or MPD, syndrome commonly occurs as a result of psychological stress, according to the National Headache Foundation. The foundation explains that “those who find difficulty in coping with stressful life situations or who are unable to successfully vent their emotions tend to build up inner tensions, which are then expressed in altered body activity.” The tension generally results in a dull ache around the ears, which often radiates to the temples and around the back of the head. Tender jaw muscles and difficulty opening the mouth eventually develop. The condition was once referred to as temporomandibular joint, or TMJ, syndrome, but the name was changed once experts discovered the true cause of the disorder.
Sometimes referred to as “tic douloureux,” trigeminal neuralgia is a type of face pain that radiates directly from the trigeminal nerve, which carries signals from the brain to facial skin. Although the condition is sometimes linked to multiple sclerosis, a tumor or swollen blood vessel, it is often thought to be a normal part of the aging process. The symptoms of trigeminal neuralgia include pain around the eye, cheek and jaw on one side of the face. MedlinePlus explains the pain as “very painful, sharp electric-like spasms that usually last a few seconds or minutes.” Chewing, shaving, brushing the teeth or touching the face may trigger the muscle spasms.
During a heart attack, most people experience intense chest pain or discomfort. In many cases, this pain can radiate to other areas of the body, including the face. According to the American Heart Association, common symptoms of a heart attack include shortness of breath, nausea, lightheadedness and pain in the stomach, back, neck, arms and jaw. In some cases, heart attacks do not even cause chest pain or discomfort. In fact, the Women’s Heart Foundation explains that “about a third of women experience no chest pain at all when having a heart attack.” If your face or jaw pain develops suddenly and occurs along with any of these symptoms, you may be suffering from a heart attack.
Before you can successfully treat face or jaw pain, it is important to understand the exact cause of the pain. For example, jaw pain caused by bruxism requires significantly different treatment than jaw pain caused by a heart attack. However, the aches and pains can be soothed away by applying ice or heat to the tender areas of the face or jaw. Use your fingers to gently massage the muscles around the neck and face and keep the jaw unclenched and relaxed. While experiencing jaw pain, avoid chewing on hard or tough foods.
- MedlinePlus: Trigeminal Neuralgia
- MedlinePlus: Bruxism
- MedlinePlus: Jaw Pain and Heart Attacks
- National Headache Foundation: TMJ -- Another Cause of Headache and Facial Pain
- American Heart Association: Heart Attack Symptoms and Warning Signs
- Women's Heart Foundation: Heart Attack Symptoms -- An Action Plan for Women