TMJ Symptoms: Lockjaw

TMJ Symptoms: Lockjaw

Lockjaw – just the word itself sounds foreboding, and indeed, there are few medical conditions more alarming than lockjaw.

Defined as a condition that prevents or inhibits the normal opening and closing of the jaw, lockjaw (or trismus) may be connected with tetanus, a life-threatening disease, which makes it even more frightening. If you suspect signs that you may have contracted tetanus, it is critical that you go to the emergency room immediately.  If you are up to date with your tetanus shots, or have other symptoms that may be related to a TMJ disorder, then you may be dealing with temporomandibular joint disorder (TMD)..   

TMJ lockjaw is a non-life threatening, treatable condition. If you suffer from temporomandibular  joint disorder(TMD) or TMJ disorder, you may be wondering if you can prevent lockjaw, what fast remedies may lessen the symptoms and what treatments are  available when you experience a symptom flare up.

TMJ Lockjaw Causes

First, let’s look at what is happening during lockjaw. Although the name implies that the jaw joint is locked in position — and it may feel that way — it really is just temporarily stuck due to swelling and pain in the temporomandibular joint where the lower jaw meets the skull.  This can be caused by a number of things, from most common being a misaligned jaw or “bad bite” to less common being causes such as an infection, arthritis, fibromyalgia or an injury.

According to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR), about 10 million Americans are affected by TMJ disorders and lockjaw is a common symptom, often following development of other untreated symptoms such as nighttime tooth grinding (bruxism), a “jaw popping” sound while chewing, persistent jaw pain, migraine headaches, and in some cases, blurred vision or hearing problems.

When left untreated for an extended period, TMJ disorders can lead to muscle spasms and inflammation in the jaw that can result in the jaw locking in place, preventing you from either opening or shutting your mouth. Although this “locking” process is scary, the pain from TMJ lockjaw also can radiate to the face, neck and shoulders and throughout the body.  Lockjaw can be accompanied by other serious symptoms or could occur alone.  In most cases it occurs in only one side of the jaw rather than affecting both sides equally.

Who does Lockjaw Affect?

There is a broad range of TMJ disorder symptoms and not everyone with TMJ will experience lockjaw. A 2014 study by the National Institutes of Health’s Dental and Craniofacial Research Department determined that 7.5 percent to 11.2 percent of people experience limited jaw mobility as a TMJ disorder symptom. The study also found that TMJ disorders are more prevalent among younger people, which is not the norm for chronic pain conditions. Additionally, women are twice as likely to suffer from TMJ disorders as men are, and cases of TMJ disorder are common among women who take oral contraceptives or estrogen supplements.

The good news is that the swelling and inflammation conditions that can lead to TMJ lockjaw are treatable.

Lockjaw Treatments

Home Remedies

Since lockjaw is caused by a muscle spasm, a key remedy is to relax that muscle. Take some slow, deep breaths and apply a warm, moist compress to the side of your face. Your doctor can recommend some specific exercises that target and stretch the jaw muscle.  In some cases starting with a sideways movement of the jaw can help to get the TMJ back in place, however, this should be done in moderation.  

Stay well hydrated. This  can help to return muscles, soft tissue and cartilage to an improved state and can allow you body to repair itself.

You can ease the pain of TMJ disorders by working to eliminate certain habits such as clenching your jaw or grinding your teeth. Aim to reduce the work your jaw muscles must do. Cut your food into smaller pieces, eat softer food and avoid chewing gum and/or sticky, chewy foods. Also, try not to open your mouth as wide when you are yawning or singing. Do you often cradle your phone between your head and your neck as you talk? This position can irritate your jaw and neck muscles.

For ongoing relief, some people have found that yoga, massage, and meditation are helpful in reducing their symptoms.  Learn more about TMJ flare up remedies here.

TMJ Soft Diet

Choosing wisely what you put in your body will have a positive effect on your jaw.  This is for nutritional and physical reasons.  Sometimes tightening jaw muscles just need a rest and sometimes the articular disc is reacting to specific foods that you are eating.  Learn more about the TMJ soft diet and consider it if your symptoms are not extreme.

Sometimes the jaw joint can become displaced and can lock if it is unable to return to its correct position.  In other cases the disc may become inflamed due to the resting position putting too much pressure on it. The motion of the jaw opening and closing as well as the resting position of the jaw are important factors in TMJ health and avoiding issues such as lockjaw.   In fact it is estimated that up to 85% of TMJ pain complaints are due to a misaligned jaw.  In these cases a neuromuscular dentist can follow the diagnosis and treatment procedures to ensure that the jaw is aligning correctly.  Creating and maintaining a proper bite often relieves TMJ lockjaw symptoms.  To learn more about how neuromuscular dentists treat TMJ read more.


Over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications, such as Ibuprofen, may provide some pain relief. Talk with your doctor about prescription muscle relaxants for severe pain. In the case of an inflamed joint, another option your doctor may consider is a corticosteroid injection. In certain cases, your doctor may prescribe painkillers,  an antidepressant or an anti-anxiety medication.  It is important to understand, medications often only mask the underlying problems and may have undesired side effects.

Dental Procedures

Many medical doctors are now aware that specially-trained dentists can alleviate the repeated occurrence of TMJ lockjaw. These dentists  may recommend creating a more even bite by correcting the way that the teeth line up and/or the replacing of any missing teeth, fillings or crowns that may be causing your bite to be misaligned.  

Surgical Procedures

Only rare and the most severe circumstances, should sufferers consider condylotomy or surgery to replace the jaw joint with an artificial joint.  These surgeries should only be considered as a last resort once all other  non-surgical options have been exhausted.  If a medical professional is recommending these as a first course of action, it would be wise to get the second opinion of a neuromuscular dentist since there is risk of complications.

Who Treats TMJ Lockjaw

If you suspect that you are dealing with lockjaw as a symptom of a TMJ disorder, it is

best to see a medical professional that is trained and experienced in proper TMD diagnosis.

Neuromuscular dentists focus their training, the technology that they use and their treatment recommendations around resolving symptoms like lockjaw non-surgically and are prepared to diagnose dysfunction correctly.  While there is not an ADA specialization for neuromuscular dentistry, it requires a high level of education and training to practice.  Check for the level of education in neuromuscular dentistry by any medical professional to be sure that they are qualified or check with the educational institution to ensure that they are properly trained to provide treatment recommendations.  Having treatment from the right care provider can drastically reduce your timeline to recovery and reduce or eliminate your lockjaw symptoms.

The neuromuscular dentists listed at Leading Dentists have all completed the Core 7 training at the Las Vegas Institute for Advanced Dental Studies, also known as LVI Global.  They are qualified to properly diagnose TMJ symptoms.  Use the form below to find a TMJ specialist near you.




More on TMJ Lockjaw at Leading Dentists

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