Neck and Jaw Pain
The muscles in the neck run up into the lower jaw, meaning that tightness, neck muscle cramps, and neck muscle strains can cause jaw pain. Conversely, problems with the jaw can cause the muscles in the neck to become dysfunctional, leading to neck pain. There are many reasons why one can antagonize the other, including some seriously debilitating conditions.
The jaw muscles are controlled for the majority of the time by the trigeminal nerve (C5). Pressure on this nerve through spinal stenosis, muscle cramps, or inflammation can lead to poor functioning of the jaw and abnormal posture with ramifications for jaw and neck pain. Stress can also cause the muscles in the neck to tighten, which can lead to many types of neck pain and jaw pain itself.
Head and neck positioning and posture play a huge role in fibromyalgia, a condition often experienced alongside chronic fatigue and immune dysfunction. In treating the neck and jaw pain associated with this condition, researchers have found that other symptoms are also often alleviated. Treatments involve good posture, physical therapy, exercise, analgesics, and moist heat.
This is due to the relief of pressure placed on the muscles in the neck when the posture becomes problematic. The major muscles that hold up the head are in the neck and jaw, but usually these are assisted by smaller muscles at the top of the spine. Atrophy and fatigue of these smaller muscles places greater strain on the neck and jaw causing the neck to hyper-extend, a characteristic posture in fibromyalgia patients. The cause of most neck and jaw pain is the trapezius muscle which extends from the head to the shoulders.
Jaw injuries are extremely common from whiplash trauma. A significant majority of this trauma involves the disc in the jaw joint being pushed out of place, leading to severe neck pain and jaw pain. To conduct a simple self assessment place fingers over the jaw joints in front of the ears and slowly open the mouth. The jaw should open, without clicking or popping noises, simultaneously on both sides and should fit the span of four fingers into the mouth easily. If this is not the case and there is jaw and neck pain present then there may be a structural issue at the heart of the problem.
Temporomandibular Joint Syndrome
Temporomandibular joint disorder can cause neck and jaw pain. This is due to neuralgia (nerve inflammation), and possible structural abnormalities. Headache, shoulder pain, and right-sided or left-sided neck pain may also be experienced. There are numerous nerves connecting the muscles of the face, jaw, and neck to the cervical spine. If jaw muscles are tense and inflamed, as in Temporomandibular Joint Syndrome, then pain can be felt in the face, neck, and the ears.
Thoracic Outlet Syndrome
If temporomandibular joint syndrome, shoulder, jaw, and neck pain are experienced, along with frequent sinus infections on one side then this may indicate thoracic outlet syndrome. Jaw and neck pain can be caused by thoracic outlet syndrome as the compression of neurovascular structures may lead to tense muscles, ischaemia, and referred pain throughout the head and neck. This condition may be managed by physical therapy alone, or may require surgery if the condition is severe (Nicholls, 2009).
Muscular and Nerve Issues
Simmons (2009) conducted a study looking at patients with Temporomandibular Jaw problems and found that anterior repositioning appliance therapy produced excellent results. Those with unilateral displaced discs experienced a bigger reduction in pain and discomfort with this therapy than those with bilateral displaced discs in the jaw, but both groups had a reduction in symptoms. Those whose discs were fully recaptured experienced the most significant benefits.
Lymph Nodes, Salivary Glands, and Dental Problems
Persistent grinding of the teeth, which can also occur whilst asleep, may lead to jaw and neck pain. Additionally, if there is an abscess under a tooth then the patient may suffer from swollen glands, inflamed lymph nodes, jaw pain, and neck pain. Chronic neck pain may be attributable to underlying dental issues, particularly if a low-grade fever is also experienced persistently, along with other signs of infection. If pain increases whilst eating, and there is an increase in swelling of the jaw, then there may be a problem with the salivary glands. Full or partial blockages of the submandibular, parotid, and other glands can cause jaw pain and infection in some cases.
Jaw and neck pain can be both acute and chronic, result from trauma or slowly incipient structural issues, and be both quick to treat and hard to alleviate. Strengthening exercises for the neck may help in some cases, as can the application of heat and cold packs to soothe or reduce inflammation.
Nicholls, A.W., (2009), Diagnosis and management of thoracic outlet syndrome, Curr Sports Med Rep, Vol.8, No.5, pp.240-9.
Simmons, H.C. 3rd, Gibbs, S.J., (2009), Anterior repositioning appliance therapy for TMJ disorders: specific symptoms relieved and relationship to disk status on MRI, J Tenn Dent Assoc, Vol.89, No.4, pp.22-30.
Last Updated: 9/25/2010