Tight Jaw Muscles: Causes and Treatment

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Tight jaw muscles can interfere with the most basic daily tasks, such as talking and chewing your food. Conditions that cause tight jaw muscles can also be quite painful. However, many of these conditions can be treated with medical interventions and home remedies.

This article discusses common causes of tight jaw muscles and how to manage your symptoms.

Woman with jaw tightness

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Causes of Tight Jaw Muscles

Tight jaw muscles can be caused by a variety of medical conditions and lifestyle habits, such as the following.

Stress and Anxiety

Tight jaw muscles can be a side effect of stress and anxiety. Muscle tension throughout the body increases when you are under a lot of stress or feeling anxious. If you are prone to clenching your jaw, you'll likely experience tension in your jaw muscles as well.

Temporomandibular Joint Disorders

Conditions that affect your jaw joint are called temporomandibular joint disorders (TMJ or TMD). These conditions are very common, affecting over 10 million Americans. There are three main categories of TMD:

  • Pain in the muscles that move your jaw
  • Joint issues involving the cartilage or bone
  • Arthritis in your jaw joint

Regardless of the underlying cause, all types of TMJ can cause tightness in your jaw muscles.

Teeth Grinding

Bruxism is a condition that occurs when you grind or clench your teeth throughout the day or while you sleep. You might not even be aware of this habit until you develop symptoms. In addition to tight jaw muscles, bruxism can cause:

  • Chipped teeth
  • Sensitive teeth
  • Locked jaw
  • Jaw pain
  • Headaches
  • Jaw dislocation
  • Popping in your jaw
  • Flattened teeth
  • Grooves in your tongue
  • Damage to the inside of your cheeks

Tetanus

Tetanus is a condition caused by a bacterial infection from Clostridium tetani, which is common in the outdoors.

This condition is often called lockjaw because tight jaw muscles are one of the most common symptoms of tetanus. Other symptoms can include:

  • Fever
  • Sweating
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Muscles spasms
  • Headache
  • Blood pressure changes
  • Heart rate changes
  • Seizures

Tetanus can lead to serious medical conditions, such as pneumonia (an infection of the air sacs in the lungs) or blood clots (collections of blood that form in your veins and arteries).

Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disorder. This means that your immune system attacks your joints as if they were foreign to your body. Inflammation causes pain throughout the joints in your body—which can include your jaw joints. Up to 90% of people with RA also have TMJ.

Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis (OA) occurs when padding between the bones in a joint wears down over time. Unlike RA, which tends to attack the same joints on both sides of the body at the same time, OA can affect one or more unrelated joints in your body. This means you could have OA on one side of your jaw, but not the other. In addition to tight jaw muscles, other symptoms of OA in the jaw include:

  • Difficulty opening your mouth
  • Difficulty moving your jaw to the opposite side
  • Earache
  • Headache
  • Pain when chewing with the affected side
  • Grinding in the joint

Excessive Chewing

Jaw muscles can become temporarily sore and tight after you've chewed gum or sticky candy or eaten tough or fatty food. However, symptoms typically resolve within a few days.

Diagnosing Jaw Pain

If you have jaw tightness that interferes with your ability to chew or talk, it's time to get it checked out. Tight jaw muscles can be diagnosed by a physical exam performed by your doctor, dentist, or physical therapist. If further TMJ issues are suspected, you might also need an X-ray, CT (computed tomography) scan, or an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging). Once the underlying cause of your symptoms is clear, treatment can begin.

At-Home Care

In many cases, at-home care can relieve symptoms of a tight jaw. Even in cases in which professional help is needed, at-home treatment is often incorporated into a holistic care routine. Types of at-home care include:

  • Heat and cold: Hot packs and ice packs can be applied to the side of your face in the area of your TMJ to help reduce your symptoms. Heat increases blood flow to the area, which helps tight muscles relax. Cold reduces blood flow to help decrease inflammation and pain.
  • NSAIDs: Over-the-counter (OTC) nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs are frequently used to treat TMJ issues. While these medications won't directly decrease tightness in your jaw muscles, they will decrease inflammation and pain. Common NSAIDs include Aleve (naproxen), Advil or Motrin (ibuprofen), and aspirin.
  • Jaw exercises: Movement can help decrease tightness in your jaw muscles. However, the wrong types of exercises can make your symptoms worse, depending on your underlying condition. Talk to your dentist or physical therapist for specific instructions and stop exercising if you experience pain.

Jaw Joint Stretches

  1. Gently open your jaw and stop when you feel resistance but no pain. Hold this position for a few seconds, then close your jaw. Shift your jaw to the left for a few seconds, then repeat to the right.
  2. Place your fingertips under your jaw. Apply gentle pressure upward and slowly opening your mouth. Move your fingertips to the front of your jaw. Apply gentle pressure downward as you close your mouth. Repeat several times.
  • Mouth guards and splints: Mouth guards and splints are often used to treat tight jaw muscles from teeth grinding and clenching—particularly at night. Basic mouth guards are available over the counter. In some cases, custom-molded mouth guards and/or splints are needed. Consult your dentist for specific recommendations.
  • Dietary changes: Avoiding certain foods can help reduce your symptoms if you have tight jaw muscles. Avoid foods that are fatty, chewy, or crunchy, and cut food up into small bites. Cook vegetables until they are soft, rather than eating them raw.
  • Massage of facial muscles: Tightness in the chewing muscles in your temples and cheeks can be treated with massage. Given the anatomy of your jaw muscles, this is best performed by a healthcare professional. But you can achieve some relief by applying gentle pressure with a couple of fingertips to your tight muscle and rotating in small circles for several minutes.

Other Treatments for a Tight Jaw

A variety of other treatments are available to reduce tightness in your jaw muscles. These can include:

  • Prescription muscle relaxants and pain relievers: In some cases, prescription medications are used to treat TMJ issues. Muscle relaxants can be prescribed, but they don't just target your tight jaw muscles—they affect muscles throughout your body. Prescription pain medications can also be helpful when NSAIDs are not effective. However, they also have potentially serious side effects.
  • Physical therapy: Tight jaw muscles and other TMJ disorders are frequently treated with physical therapy. Interventions include manual therapy, exercise, and modalities such as electrical stimulation and ultrasound.
  • Injections: Although they aren't the first choice in the treatment of tight jaw muscles, injections are sometimes used when other treatments aren't successful. Injections can include lidocaine to reduce pain, corticosteroids to reduce inflammation, Hyalgan (hyaluronate) to lubricate and reduce friction in the TMJ, and Botox (botulinum toxin) to relieve persistently tight muscles.

Summary

Tight jaw muscles can be caused by stress, anxiety, teeth grinding, or other medical conditions such as arthritis. Treatment includes massage, stretching, medications, and physical therapy. Mouth guards can also be helpful to reduce jaw issues from teeth grinding.

A Word From Verywell

Living with tight jaw muscles can be frustrating—especially when you aren't sure what's causing your symptoms. However, treatment can be very effective. Talk to your doctor or dentist about your symptoms, even if they are mild. Early intervention can help prevent more serious jaw issues from developing.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Does your jaw hurt with COVID-19?

    Stress and mouth breathing caused by COVID-19 can lead to jaw pain.

  • How can I relax my mouth at night?

    Wear a mouth guard to help your jaw muscles relax while you sleep.

  • Does clenching your jaw make it bigger?

    When you clench your jaw, you are working your chewing muscles. Over time, these muscles can get bigger.

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11 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Bruxism.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Tetanus symptoms and complications.

  4. Rheumatoid Arthritis Support Network. RA and jaw pain: Can rheumatoid arthritis cause joint pain?.

  5. Global Healthy Living Foundation. Is your jaw pain because of arthritis? Signs your arthritis is affecting your jaw, and what to do about it.

  6. Practical Pain Management. Osteoarthritis of the temporomandibular joint.

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  10. University of Michigan Health. Physical therapy for temporomandibular disorders.

  11. Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC. TMJ injection treatments: Lidocaine, steroids, hyaluronate & botox.