Exploring TMD Symptoms: LockJaw

Lockjaw TMD symptom

Exploring TMD Symptoms: LockJaw

TMJ LockJaw

When your jaw locks, it is a painful and debilitating experience.  There are numerous things that you can do to help the condition.  Leading Dentists publishes trusted information about tmd symptoms like TMJ lockjaw in order to give sufferers insight into the causes, diagnosis, common treatments and how to find a specialized care provider.

Lockjaw, or Trismus, is a painful and debilitating condition that results in reduced opening of the jaws. This condition is relatively common and may be the result of a variety of issues, including TMJ disorder.  A locked jaw can be mild or severe and may interfere with eating, speech, oral hygiene and can even alter facial appearance.

Lockjaw, or Trismus, can also be temporary or permanent and is often distressing and painful for sufferers. Further, diagnosis can often be difficult because severe lockjaw can present limitations for doctors who are trying to access the oral cavity. However, the dental field is currently experiencing tremendous advances in technologies and knowledge around Trismus and specially trained dentists can often help sufferers to experience relief and complete dissolution of the condition.

Let’s examine the condition itself first.

Causes of Lockjaw: 


One of the most infamous causes of lockjaw is tetanus, which is potentially lethal. Tetanus is an infection characterized by muscle spasms. Yet, while tetanus is one cause of lockjaw, and it may be the most famous, it is not the most common.  This is due to modern medicine which pro actively recommends a tetanus shot once every ten years.


A more common issue with many people who develop lockjaw is a jaw issue, many times located in the temporomandibular joint. Inflammation of the soft tissue in the mouth is one of the leading causes of lockjaw. Many things can cause the soft tissue in the mouth to be inflamed, including too much chewing or use of the mouth (do you chew a lot of gum?), or disorders of the joints in the jaw such as temporomandibular joint disorder: TMJ Disorder or TMD.


Oral diseases, fevers, or other illnesses that have symptoms in the mouth can also cause lockjaw. One of the reasons for this is because the muscles in the jaw become worn and exhausted from both tissue swelling and weakness. As a result, your muscles can’t open your mouth all the way.

Is My LockJaw Caused by a TMJ Disorder or Something Else?

Trismus, is the medical term that refers to the inability to fully open the mouth.  It can occur from a TMJ Disorder or from an internal or external cause.

  • “Intra-articular” causes of lockjaw include issues with the temporomandibular joint that are causing limitations of movement. These issues can include the following:
  • Ankylosis means “stiff joint” and it can be the result of trauma to your chin or infection.
  • Arthritis synovitis: Dramatic inflammation of the synovium, which is a thin layer of cells that lines our joints.
  • Meniscus damage: Similar to the cartilage in your knee, the meniscus in your TMJ provides structural integrity to the jaw joint.
  • “Extra-articular” causes of lockjaw include issues in the jaw joint that come from outside the jaw, including:
  • Infection resulting from periodontal issues, pericoronal issues, Tetanus, Meningitis, Brain abscess or parotid abscesses.
  • Dental causes include issues that develop as a result of dental treatments and are usually temporary.

How Common is Lockjaw as a Symptom of TMJ Disorder?

A recent study published by the National Institutes of Health Dental and Craniofacial Research department found that between 7.5% and 11.2% of people experience limited jaw mobility as a common symptom of a TMJD. The study also stated that the prevalence rates of TMJ disorders are higher among younger persons, which is unusual for chronic pain conditions. Further, TMJ disorders are at least twice as prevalent in women as men, and women using either supplemental estrogen or oral contraceptives are more likely to seek treatment for TMJ conditions.  However, not every TMD sufferer will have limited jaw movement.  There are a broad range of symptoms associated with TMD.  

How are Causes of Lockjaw Diagnosed?

At the appointment for TMJ disorder diagnosis, a dentist should:

  • Conduct a complete medical history.
  • Listen to and feel your jaw and ear area, and ask you to open and close your mouth.
  • Examine your teeth, bite and the alignment of your jaw joints.
  • Note if your teeth have any abnormalities that could be causing your jaw pain or could indicate that you grind or clench your teeth.
  • Press on the muscles around your jaw, ears, face, shoulders, arms and back to find out which areas are painful or uncomfortable for you.
  • Ask questions about your life, any anxiety or stress you are experiencing, and how you are sleeping at night.
  • Measure how much you can open your mouth and if you experience any noises, pain, or other symptoms when doing so.
  • Check for issues like high fillings in your teeth, displaced teeth, cavities, uneven surfaces on your teeth, underbites and overbites, and other problems that may cause TMJ pain or discomfort.

Testing and Imaging Used in TMJ Disorder Diagnosis:

  • The dentist may order imaging or other tests to help assess your possible temporomandibular joint disorder diagnosis.
  • CT or CAT Scans can provide detail on the bones in the joint and surrounding areas, the sinuses, and the brain.
  • MRI shows the soft tissues including the disc and muscles.  MRIs can also be taken with the mouth open and closed to show positioning of the disc and muscles in relation to the joints.
  • Tomography is a type of x-ray that shows cross sections of the jaw area.
  • Other routine dental x-rays can be used to diagnose TMJ disorder that provide views of the head, joint, teeth, and surrounding areas.

Lockedjaw Treatments:

The Mayo Clinic lists the following treatments for TMJ disorders resulting in a locked jaw:


In conjunction with other nonsurgical treatments, medications that may help relieve the pain associated with TMJ disorders may include:

  • Pain relievers
  • Tricyclic antidepressants, also used for pain relief.
  • Muscle relaxants
  • Sedatives


Non-pharmaceutical treatments for TMJ disorder include:

  • Bite guards (oral splints)
  • Physical therapy
  • Counseling

Surgical or other procedures

When other methods don’t help, your doctor might suggest procedures such as:

  • Arthrocentesis. This procedure involves the insertion of needles into the joint so that fluid can be irrigated through the joint to remove debris and inflammatory byproducts.
  • Modified Condylotomy: this is recommended by some practitioners in serious cases that require reconstruction of the jaw.
  • Injections, such as corticosteroids
  • Surgery


If jaw movement is only mildly limited and not associated with pain, self care can be helpful in reducing the symptom of a locking jaw.  If there is an ongoing issue or associated with pain, consult a TMD dentist.

The following tips may help you alleviate symptoms of TMJ disorders:

Related TMJ Articles:   How Do Neuromuscular Dentists Diagnose Me?

How To Find a Dentist That Has Experience With Trismus:

Not all dentists are qualified to diagnose and treat TMJ disorders, particularly the more severe cases involving lockjaw.  Here are a few tips for finding a dentist who is qualified to diagnose and treat your TMD:


  •  You need to find a dentist with specialized training in neuromuscular dentistry. Neuromuscular dentistry is an approach to dental treatment that focuses on correction of a common cause of jaw misalignment, TMD.


  • Dentists who specialize in TMJ Disorders often have one or more of the following technologies in their clinic:
  1. K7 Evaluation System: Provides three distinctly different technologies for measuring, displaying and storing objective data on physiologic and anatomical status and function.
  2. i-CAT: Computed Axial Tomography is the process of using computers to generate a three-dimensional image from flat (i.e, two-dimensional) x-ray pictures, one slice at a time.
  3. Digital dental X-Rays: Provide better dental care and more accurate diagnoses.
  4. J5 Myomonitor:  TENS unit designed especially for the Neuromuscular Dentist. Technically called a “Transcutaneous Neural Stimulation” device, the J5 relaxes the muscles of your face and neck to help determine the proper trajectory or “path of closure” for your jaw.

Easily find a TMD dentist near you using our search form below.  All listed dentists are graduates of TMD training through Las Vegas International Dental’s temporomandibular joint disorder curriculum and are prepared with the technology to provide effective care for each patients unique TMD case.

Related TMJ Articles:   6 Home Remedies for TMJ Symptoms





  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trismus
  2. “Prevalence of TMJD and Its Signs and Symptoms” http://www.nidcr.nih.gov/DataStatistics/FindDataByTopic/FacialPain/PrevalenceTMJD.htm
  3. Johansson A, et al: Gender difference in symptoms related to temporomandibular disorders in a population of 50-year-old subjects. J OROFAC PAIN 2003; 17:29-35.
  4. Treatments for TMJ disorders: http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/tmj/basics/treatment/con-20043566
Categories TMD
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