What Is Jaw Popping?

  • Shivani Gulati MS Pharm, Medicinal Chemistry, National Institute of Pharmaceutical Education and Research, Hyderabad
  • Humna Maryam Ikram BS, Pharmacology, University of Dundee, Scotland, UK

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Overview

Have you heard a popping or clicking sound coming from your jaw? While visiting the dentist, does it hurt to open your mouth wide? Or perhaps it hurts after eating a big taste of anything. If so, there's a strong possibility you could be dealing with a temporomandibular joint (TMJ) condition. A healthcare professional should be seen if jaw popping causes pain. In this article, we will explore what jaw popping is, its potential causes, its relevant symptoms, available treatment options, and tips for maintaining good oral health.

What is jaw-popping?

Jaw popping refers to a clicking or cracking sound that occurs when you open or close your mouth while speaking, chewing, or yawning. While jaw clicking is often harmless and painless, it can be indicative of an underlying issue with the TMJ or jaw joint. Jaw popping varies from mild to severe, affecting one or both sides of your face. It is a common symptom of temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorders, also known as TMD.1

Understanding TMJ disorder

The temporomandibular joint (TMJ) is the joint that links the jawbone to the skull, allowing us to perform a variety of motions like chewing, speaking, and yawning. TMJ disorder, also known as temporomandibular disorder (TMD), occurs when there is a problem with the jaw joint and the surrounding muscles. This can result in a range of symptoms, including jaw popping, jaw pain, orofacial pain, and difficulty opening or closing the mouth.

Causes and risk factors of jaw popping

TMD is believed to result from problems with the TMJ, or jaw muscles. According to the National Institute of Craniofacial Research, TMD affects over 10 million people regardless of age, with women affected more often than men. 3 There are several factors that can contribute to jaw popping:4,5  

TMJ disorders

The most frequent cause of jaw popping is TMJ dysfunction, which can result from many different causes, such as:

  • Malocclusion: When your teeth don't fit together properly when you bite down
  • Skeletal abnormalities in the jaw joint
  • Muscle tension due to stress and anxiety
  • Trauma from an accident or sports-related injury
  • Genetic predisposition, with a family history of TMJ-related issues

Harmful habits

Certain habits can contribute to jaw popping, including:

  • Chewing gum too often
  • Biting your fingernails
  • Grinding your teeth (Bruxism)
  • Clenching your jaw
  • Thrusting your jaw out
  • Biting your lip or cheek

Other causes

In some cases, jaw popping can be a result of other underlying conditions, such as:

Symptoms of Jaw Popping

It is crucial to understand that noises (like clicking or cracking) from the TMJs are typical, are regarded as natural, and don't require treatment.3 

The following signs of TMD, however, include:

  • Discomfort in the chewing muscles or jaw joint (most common symptom)
  • Increasing facial or neck pain
  • Jaw clenching
  • Jaw locking or limited movement
  • Painful  jaw grating, clicking, or popping on opening or shutting the mouth
  • Hearing loss, earaches, dizziness, or ringing in the ears (Tinnitus)
  • Headaches or migraines
  • A change in the tooth occlusion

Diagnosis of TMD or jaw popping

TMDs are difficult to diagnose due to their unclear causes and symptoms.  TMDs may not be related to mouth, jaw, or face pain, so it's essential to consult a doctor or dentist for a proper diagnosis.

If you experience jaw popping or any TMJ disorder symptoms, it is essential to seek medical evaluation. A healthcare professional, such as a dentist or oral and maxillofacial specialist, will conduct a thorough medical examination to diagnose the underlying cause. A doctor or dentist will note symptoms, take a detailed medical history, ask about pain location, duration, and spread, and examine the head, neck, face, and jaw for tenderness, jaw clicking, or movement difficulty.6 

Imaging studies may be suggested to rule out other conditions. This may include: 

  • Panoramic X-ray is used to evaluate your teeth and jaw bone
  • Computed tomographic (CT) scanning is used to produce precise images of the bones involved in the joint
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is used to examine potential problems with the disc in the jaw joint and encircling soft tissue or muscles7 

Management and treatment of jaw-popping

You should visit a doctor if your jaw clicking continues, worsens, or is accompanied by pain or other symptoms. Healthcare professionals can assess your condition, identify the underlying reason, and suggest the best course of action.2 

The treatment for jaw popping depends on the severity of the condition and the underlying cause. Here are some treatment options that healthcare providers may recommend:

Lifestyle changes

Mild jaw popping can be improved by making specific lifestyle and behaviour modifications. These modifications may include:

  • Restricting or avoiding bad behaviours like gum chewing and nail-biting
  • Practising stress-reduction methods will help ease jaw tightness
  • Applying hot or cold compresses to the jaw to reduce discomfort and swelling
  • Soft food consumption to ease jaw joint stress8 

Home remedies

Several home remedies can provide relief from jaw popping, such as:

  • Performing jaw exercises to strengthen the muscles and improve jaw movement
  • Using over-the-counter pain relievers, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen, to alleviate pain and inflammation
  • Apply warm compresses or ice packs to the jaw joint
  • Avoiding foods that require excessive chewing
  • Practising relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, meditation, and massage, to reduce stress and muscle tension

Medication

In some cases to treat the symptoms of jaw popping, medical professionals may occasionally prescribe medication. This may include:

Nonsurgical Treatments

If conservative methods are ineffective, healthcare providers may recommend nonsurgical therapies, such as:

  • Dental Appliances like dental aligners, oral splints, mouthguards, and dental cosmetic restorations help align the jaw and reduce pressure on the joint10 
  • Physiotherapy to improve jaw movement and strengthen the muscles.
  • Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) therapy to provide pain relief
  • Ultrasound therapy to reduce inflammation and promote healing

Surgery

In severe cases of jaw popping that do not respond to other treatments, surgery may be considered. Surgical options may include:

  • Arthrocentesis is a minimally invasive procedure that involves flushing out the joint with sterile fluid to remove debris and reduce inflammation.
  • Arthroscopy is a procedure that uses a small camera and surgical instruments to repair or remove damaged tissue in the joint.
  • Open-joint surgery is a more invasive procedure that involves making a larger incision to access the joint and repair or replace damaged structures 11 

FAQs

How can I prevent jaw popping?

Making certain lifestyle and behaviour modifications is necessary to prevent jaw popping. Injurious behaviours including chewing gum, biting your nails, grinding your teeth, clenching your jaw, pushing your mouth out, and biting your lip or cheek can all be avoided or limited to lessen the risk of jaw popping. Also, using stress-reduction strategies like meditation and deep breathing helps ease jaw tightness. Eat soft meals to ease stress on the jaw joint and apply heat or cold packs to the jaw to minimise discomfort and inflammation.

How common is jaw-popping?

Millions of individuals worldwide experience jaw popping, a frequent symptom of temporomandibular joint (TMJ) problems. It can affect one or both sides of your face, and its severity can range from mild to severe. Although jaw popping is frequently painless and innocuous, it might indicate a TMJ or jaw joint problem.

Who is at risk of jaw popping?

Although jaw popping can happen to anyone, several conditions can make it more likely. Malocclusion, skeletal abnormalities in the jaw joint, muscle tension brought on by stress and anxiety, trauma, genetic predisposition, and bad habits like chewing gum, biting your nails, grinding your teeth, clenching your jaw, protruding your jaw, and biting your lip or cheek are among these factors.

Can jaw-popping go away on its own?

If jaw cracking is caused by innocuous behaviours like chewing gum or biting your nails, it may go away on its own. However, it is advised to seek medical assistance if jaw clicking is accompanied by pain or other alarming symptoms.

When should I see a doctor?

When jaw popping is ongoing, getting worse, or accompanied by discomfort or other symptoms, it is advised to contact a doctor. A visit to a healthcare professional is suggested for a better diagnosis and treatment, especially if jaw popping is accompanied by pain and other underlying conditions, including restricted jaw mobility, locking of the jaw, headaches, earaches, face pain, neck pain, or popping or clicking noises in the jaw joint.

Summary

Jaw popping is a frequent problem that can be brought on by several things, including TMJ disease, bad habits, trauma, dental problems, and other underlying illnesses. While it is often harmless, persistent or painful jaw popping should not be ignored. Seeking a professional evaluation can help identify the root cause and determine the most suitable treatment options.

Remember to prioritise good oral health practises, manage stress, and avoid habits that strain the jaw joint. If you experience jaw popping or related symptoms, consult a healthcare professional for an appropriate diagnosis and personalised treatment.

References

  1. Lomas J, Gurgenci T, Jackson C, Campbell D. Temporomandibular dysfunction. Aust J Gen Pract [Internet]. 2018 Apr 1 [cited 2023 Nov 30];47(4):212–5. Available from: https://www1.racgp.org.au/ajgp/2018/april/temporomandibular-dysfunction
  2. Maini K, Dua A. Temporomandibular Syndrome. [Updated 2023, January 30]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023 Jan. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK551612/
  3. (Temporomandibular Disorders): National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research. https://www.nidcr.nih.gov/health-info/tmd#additional-resources
  4. Chisnoiu AM, Picos AM, Popa S, Chisnoiu PD, Lascu L, Picos A, et al. Factors involved in the etiology of temporomandibular disorders - a literature review. Medicine and Pharmacy Reports [Internet]. 2015 Sep 20 [cited 2023 Nov 30];88(4):473–8. Available from: https://www.medpharmareports.com/index.php/mpr/article/view/485.
  5. Matheson EM, Fermo JD, Blackwelder RS. Temporomandibular Disorders: Rapid Evidence Review. Am Fam Physician. 2023 Jan;107(1):52-58.
  6. Ferneini EM. Temporomandibular joint disorders(Tmd). Journal of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery [Internet]. 2021 Oct [cited 2023 Nov 30];79(10):2171–2. Available from: https://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S0278239121006637
  7. Talmaceanu D, Lenghel LM, Bolog N, Hedesiu M, Buduru S, Rotar H, et al. Imaging modalities for temporomandibular joint disorders: an update. Medicine and Pharmacy Reports [Internet]. 2018 Jul 24 [cited 2023 Nov 30];91(3):280–7. Available from: https://www.medpharmareports.com/index.php/mpr/article/view/970
  8. Gauer RL, Semidey MJ. Diagnosis and treatment of temporomandibular disorders. Am Fam Physician. 2015 Mar 15;91(6):378-86.
  9. Andre A, Kang J, Dym H. Pharmacologic treatment for temporomandibular and temporomandibular joint disorders. Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery Clinics of North America [Internet]. 2022 Feb [cited 2023 Nov 30];34(1):49–59. Available from: https://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S1042369921000601
  10. Gazal G. Overcoming temporomandibular joint clicking and pain. CRANIO® [Internet]. 2020 Jul 3 [cited 2023 Nov 30];38(4):209–11. Available from: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/08869634.2020.1769440
  11. Dimitroulis G. Management of temporomandibular joint disorders: A surgeon’s perspective. Australian Dental Journal [Internet]. 2018 Mar [cited 2023 Nov 30];63(S1). Available from: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/adj.12593

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This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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