At my practice in Boston, MA I see a large percentage of patients with a variety of TMJ symptoms. A common question that comes up is, “I have jaw popping when chewing, is that bad?” It can be quite alarming for a patient when they are chewing a sandwich and their jaw pops in and out with every bite. The good news is— a large percentage of patients with jaw popping is painless and often harmless.

This inevitably leads the patient to ask the next question, “Should anything be done about my jaw popping?” My response is, as anything in life, it depends.  If the popping is painless, not inhibiting ability to eat, and is not creating other symptoms—I often recommend to monitor the popping or clicking over time.

However, there are times when jaw popping matters. In fact, it can matter alot. In this article, we’ll talk about jaw popping in detail.

Jaw popping when chewing is your warning light

In some instances, jaw popping is accompanied by other symptoms. If you notice you’re unable to open wide, you have muscle pain, headaches, earaches, and/or jaw fatigue. That’s what I’m talking about.

These TMJ symptoms should be considered as a signal to follow up with a TMJ specialist to evaluate the situation. The combination of clicking in the presence of other symptoms is indicating that there is an unbalance. The jaw, muscles, and TMJ all work together. When they are working out of harmony, jaw popping is an initial sign. When the disharmony is severe enough for long enough, it can create more complex pain. We call that TMJ disorder.

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    Now here’s the thing: not all jaw popping progresses to become TMJ disorder. There’s plenty of times its just a flash in the pan that is meaningless. However, it’s one of the first signs of TMJ symptoms. So it’s a good idea to monitor any progression. It’s easier to treat the symptoms early than as they progress to more serious symptoms.

    When is TMJ treatment needed for jaw popping?

    Okay, so this section will get a little technical. Before you read any further, I’ll give you the summary. What you need to know about jaw popping is: It should be treated by a specialist if its causing other symptoms.

    In this section, we’re going to zero in on those other symptoms. I’ve boiled down it down to three situations which jaw popping exists. The first situation is usually benign, and the second two are when you should consider discussing jaw popping with a TMJ specialist.

    Here are a few common jaw-clicking or popping situations:

    1. When jaw popping or clicking occurs but nothing else. Mouth range of motion is normal and there is no other pain. This is known as disc displacement with reduction.
    2. When there is jaw popping, mouth opening is limited, and jaw deflection occurs to one side.  What’s happening here is that the jaw is dislocating on one side but not the other—to be more technical you might see this also called, disc displacement without reduction with limited opening.
    3. When there is a jaw popping accompanied by muscle soreness, muscle fatigue, earaches, or headaches that affect day to day activities. This is similar to disc displacement with reduction, but often indicates that the jaw, temporal mandibular joint, and the teeth are severely out of harmony. What is happening is—The position where the teeth are most comfortable biting together, puts a strain on the position where the jaw is most comfortable closing. This battle for position between the jaw and the teeth, causes the muscles to work extra hard, constantly shifting to accommodate both positions. This leads to fatigue, pain, and strained ligaments which ultimately contributes to the jaw clicking and popping.

    To simplify, there is a disc that sits on top of your jaw joint. When this disc is out of the proper position– You get clicking and popping. It’s not an issue unless the positioning creates symptoms that affect function. 

    Image of TMJ and disc showing jaw popping and lockjaw

    What type of doctor do I see for jaw popping?

    Oh and I know what you’re thinking, who do I see for this? A good place to start is your general dentist. However, not all dentists are trained in TMJ symptoms. If your dentist is not experienced in the complexity of these symptoms, you may need to find a TMJ specialist. In case you’re wondering how to go about finding a TMJ specialist in your area, you can check out this article for some things to look for.

    Jaw Clicking and Popping: It’s not that complicated, I promise

    Now I know what your thinking, this all sounds complicated, so the treatment is surgery, right? Good news again, more than 95% of TMJ patients can successfully be treated without any invasive surgery. There is a combination of non-invasive techniques which depend on the patient’s particular circumstance. To give you an idea, some examples of treatment that a TMJ specialist may recommend are an orthotic night guard, occlusal equilibration (an adjustment of your bite), botox of the jaw muscles, orthodontics, and/or stress management. The treatment for TMJ can be life-changing. To a patient suffering from TMJ for a long period of time, it can feel like a weight of bricks are removed from them after their symptoms improve.