The jaw is obviously meant to open and close. By definition, that’s what a jaw does, right? So it isn’t surprising that jaw locking, also called lockjaw, is a huge source of anxiety if it happens to you.
Studies estimate that at least 5 to 12% of the population have had their jaw lock.
If this sounds all too familiar, you’re probably looking for answers. In this article, we’ll discuss what is lock jaw, what’s causing your lockjaw symptoms..and, most of all, we’ll talk about how you fix lockjaw.
So buckle up, get ready, and let’s talk about finding the key to unlock your jaw.
What is lockjaw?
When you google, “what is lockjaw”, you’ll find that typically the condition tetanus comes up pretty much synonymously in the search ranking. That can be a bit confusing. Tetanus is a bacterial infection that creates a variety of symptoms, one of which is lockjaw. Here’s how google actually go this one wrong and the search is a little misleading. Lock jaw is not the only symptom of tetanus, and tetanus is not the only cause of lockjaw.
In the modern world jawlock or jaw locking is usually not from tetanus. It is possible, but its not usually what’s causing lockjaw for most people. Tetanus was much more common in the past, but in today’s society, it’s relatively rare due to modern vaccines and preventative measures.
So here’s what you need to know about lockjaw
It’s the inability to open or close your jaw. Jaw locking is most often caused by muscle strain, muscle spasm, or by a temporary dislocation of the jaw joint also known as the temporomandibular joint. You may also come across the term trismus in your research. That’s the medical term for restricted jaw movement. It means the same thing as what laypeople call lockjaw.
Why does any of this matter? Because lock jaw, which we will use synonymously with jaw locking, causes serious trouble in speaking, eating or even in maintaining the usual oral hygiene. That means it affects most functions that people perform throughout the day. In otherwords…it can be debilitating and down right overwhelming if you have jaw locking for any extended amount of time.
Lockjaw generally is a temporary problem that eventually relieves with proper treatment. However, I’ll tell you when your jaw is locked for even a few hours and you’re unable to eat or speak normally, that can sure seem like forever.
What Causes Lockjaw?
The other day I saw one of the worst cases of lock jaw I’ve seen in a while. The patient could barely open her mouth more than a few millimeters, and you know what? She had no idea what caused it.
That’s a common sentiment with lockjaw. Often jaw lock happens without a clear accident, injury, or event. So if your jaw is locking, and you are overwhelmed trying to figure out what caused it and how to avoid it in the future, you’re not alone.
The reality of lockjaw is that it is often caused by several factors that build overtime. Lock jaw is usually associated with temporomandibular joint disorder and a longstanding muscle strain. There are other causes more on that later, but TMJ disorder and muscle strain, by in large, are the most common causes.
So how actually does lockjaw actually happen?
There’s a disharmony between the position of the jaw, muscles, and the TMJ. The reason this happens is because of the design of the jaw. The mandible is a sling that is connected on both sides of the head to stationary points.
If one side is out of balance from the other, then the muscles over time begin to overcompensate. As tension builds over time, the muscles and ligaments of the jaw become strained.
Just like a bodybuilder lifts weight until the muscles are so fatigued they cannot lift another repetition, a similar process happens with the jaw. The tension reaches a point of critical fatigue where the muscles lock up temporarily until they have a chance to rest. That is the most common cause of lockjaw.
Other Causes of Jaw Locking
Oh, but that’s not all. TMJ disorder is the most common cause of lockjaw, but there’s a few other causes of jaw locking you need to know. Let’s look at some others:
If there is an accident to the jaw, such as a blow to the face or a motor vehicle accident, what happens? Inflammation and swelling occurs. When the tissues around the jaw are swollen, the jaw function is limited by the fluid around the TMJ.
Think of running on land versus trying to run in the ocean. Fluid limits mobility. The same concept happens when there is swelling around the jaw. The swelling, or fluid, limits the mobility of the jaw.
Wisdom teeth erupting in poor positioning can create lockjaw for two reasons. The wisdom teeth can push on the jaw and interfere with it’s path of motion, or the wisdom teeth can create swelling from an infection that limits the movement of the jaw joint.
Dislocation of the TMJ
If you’ve ever opened really big to take a bite of something, heard a pop, and then had a difficult time closing your mouth, that is most likely dislocation of the temporomandibular joint. The top of the jaw sits in a socket on either side of the head to form the TMJ. Typically the ligaments of the TMJ maintain the jaw in the socket. However, sometimes the ligaments can be stretch too far and the head of the jaw can temporally pop out of the socket.
When the jaw dislocates the most common symptoms is the jaw locking temporally in the open position until the dislocation is relocated into place.
Tetanus is a serious bacterial infection, and often the first symptoms of tetanus is: yes you guessed it… lockjaw. It affects the muscles and the nervous system throughout the body. Therefore, the muscles tighten and contract.
Tetanus is most often associated with animal bites, burns, cuts, wounds, insect bites, tattoos, piercing, and injection of drugs.
The symptom of lockjaw is obviously a limited ability to open or close your mouth. However, that’s a pretty cheap answer. It’s more valuable to tell you the symptoms that often lead up to lockjaw. That way you can avoid lockjaw from even happening.
As we talked about there are a variety of causes for jaw locking, but let’s focus on the causes that are most controllable and most common. The development of lockjaw is most often associated with worsening symptoms of TMJ dysfunction. So let’s talk about the symptoms that you can look out for that may be a sign of a developing lockjaw problem.
Some common symptoms that arrive in tandem with lockjaw are:
- Earaches or ear ringing
- Jaw popping or jaw clicking
- Clenching the teeth
- Fatigue when chewing, speaking, or yawning.
- The top and bottom teeth feel like they don’t fit together well
- Facial pain
How Do You Treat Lockjaw?
Lockjaw is a very stressful, and frankly disturbing condition when someone cannot open their mouth. It’s typically treated immediately if its more than mild.
If you are at home and trying to find relief from lock jaw, I understand how scary that can be.
Here’s what you can do at home to try to relieve the situation:
- Apply a warm compress and massage the muscles of the jaw, several times a day, so that it soothes and relaxes the muscles.
- Maintain good posture during the day
- Limit psychological stress as best you can, and be mindful if you are clenching your jaw excessively from stress.
- Taking magnesium and calcium rich foods or supplements have been shown to help
- Take anti-inflammatory medications like naproxen or ibuprofen every 6 hours to reduce inflammation
- You should also try and practice a jaw stretching and exercises 2 to 3 times per day to help stretch the area.
- Stay hydrated.
- If your lockjaw is persisting for more than a day or two, or is happening more and more frequently, you should consult with your dentist who may refer you to a TMJ specialist. The TMJ specialist will evaluate your jaw, teeth, and joint to determine a cause for the lock jaw. Typically treatments can permanently prevent lockjaw from occurring. Common treatments that are associated with patients that have lockjaw are removable oral appliances called orthotics, balancing the bite, orthodontics, physical therapy, and/or botox to help relax the muscle tension.
Lockjaw vs. Jaw Lock: Are They The Same Thing?
Here’s the deal, in the past lockjaw was associated with tetanus so you will find that a lot of the medical journals associate the two together. However, for our purposes, whether you call it lock jaw or jaw lock, it essentially means there is a reduction in the movement of the jaw to open and close. If you are having trouble opening your jaw compared to usual, and you tell a dentist or TMJ specialist that you have lockjaw or jaw lock…you’re good either way. They will understand what you mean.
The bottom line: Is Lockjaw a Dental Emergency?
When I say the term lockjaw, it’s very visual. You’re probably thinking of a person with their teeth clenched, suddenly unable to open their mouth. There’s a misnomer in that sentence: the word suddenly. Sometimes lockjaw does happen suddenly, but fortunately, there are often warning signs to help at least catch the condition before it becomes so severe.
The best answer to lockjaw is the prevention of lockjaw.
Be mindful of the warning symptoms of lockjaw. Symptoms include increased muscle tension of the jaw, fatigue when chewing, clenching, grinding your teeth, headaches, and even ear pain. All these precurses generally happen prior to a lockjaw event.
Either way, if you do find yourself in an episode of lockjaw, please do not panic. Try to remain calm. Follow the recommended techniques to massage the jaw and use warm compresses. If the lockjaw doesn’t relieve itself in an hour or two, you should contact your dentist or a TMJ specialist to discuss. They will be able to guide you and treat the condition to help you find relief, usually within hours to days.