Chronic pain in the jaw is widespread, especially among people over sixty-five. TMJ pain can also accompany many conditions, making it challenging to figure out the exact cause without proper screening.
Performing jaw exercises can significantly impact pain for many types of jaw dysfunction regardless of age. Targeted exercises can increase strength, relax tight muscles, and decrease pain; they can even help with the annoying clicking sounds that often accompany TMJ.
Are you dealing with a temporomandibular joint disorder? Identifying the underlying causes and learning simple home treatment methods can help relieve pain.
Different Types of Jaw Pain
Pain in the jaw area (called orofacial pain) can occur for many reasons, and it is vital to figure out the precise cause of your jaw pain before beginning treatment or exercise.
Some common causes of jaw pain include:
Recent dental work, toothache, poorly fitting dentures, or tooth infection
Masseter pain from stress-related clenching, jaw misalignment, or teeth grinding during the day or at night
Trauma/fracture, neuralgias, cardiac-related conditions (such as angina), or infection.
Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) problems often cause pain and soreness in other areas of the head and neck. Often headaches, neck pain, pain while chewing, ear pain, and clicking or popping sounds when moving your jaw accompany TMJ pain. (1)
It’s widely believed that TMJs and TMDs (temporomandibular joint disorders) are interchangeable. However, TMD broadly refers to several conditions and structures associated with jaw joint dysfunction, while TMJ refers to the jaw joint itself.
Challenges for Older Adults with TMJ
For many seniors, aches & pains are often attributed to ‘aging.’ Similarly, orofacial conditions can cause jaw and mouth pain, but they are often overlooked or ignored in older adults.
In more severe cases, seeking medical intervention for TMJ pain might be appropriate. Older adults are often less likely to seek help due to a lack of resources or perceived barriers. They are also less likely to perform prescribed exercises to improve their jaw pain. Unfortunately, this can lead to a more chronic problem. (3)
Orthopedic Causes of TMJ Pain
TMD pain can arise from problems with the bone that makes up the joint, the disc that cushions the joint, or the surrounding muscles that help to open and close the jaw.
Pain in jaw muscles is often from tension-related teeth grinding or clenching due to high stress or anxiety levels.
Jaw joint disc problems are less common and tend to occur in younger people more than in older people. This category includes disc displacement or other disc disorders, which may result in a clicking or popping noise. Disc issues in the jaw can also prevent you from being able to open your mouth entirely.
Just as with any other joint, the jaw joint often experiences degeneration due to osteoarthritis and bone loss, especially in people over sixty-five. (2)
Arthritic jaw pain is common, and most older jaw pain patients experience joint degeneration. It is also more common in females than males because of a post-menopausal decrease in estrogen, which is often associated with bone loss.
Other Causes and Diagnosis of TMJ Pain
For seniors, underlying medical conditions, certain medications, or general health problems with aging can complicate diagnosis. (2)
In younger people, most jaw pain results from either dental issues or musculoskeletal impairment. Diagnosing jaw pain in older adults can be more complicated, and jaw pain diagnosis is individualized and specific to each person’s medical history.
Initially, older adults with facial pain should be screened for facial tumors since cancer is more prevalent in those over sixty-five.
In other cases, a history of heart conditions or other cardiac problems may indicate angina as a cause of jaw pain.
If you have recently been fitted for dentures, you may be able to attribute your TMJ pain to ill-fitting dentures.
If you are experiencing a fever, redness, and swelling, an infection may be the culprit of your pain. (2)
Your doctor must consider your whole medical history when diagnosing your jaw pain. This careful consideration can help you find the proper treatment for relieving pain based on a specific root cause.
TMJ Treatment and Exercises
So how long does TMJ pain last? Does TMJ pain go away?
TMD pain is typically considered mild to moderate. Once you can identify the cause of TMJ dysfunction, simple jaw exercises can help manage pain and release jaw tension. (4)
Close your mouth until your teeth touch, but don’t clench, then place your tongue on the roof of your mouth.
Keeping your tongue pressed to the top of your mouth, slowly lower your jaw to open your mouth, Sliding your tongue toward the back of your mouth.
Perform this movement slowly, holding the open position to feel a stretch.
Keeping the mouth slightly open and teeth not touching.
With a slow, smooth motion, move your jaw left and right. Note: performing this movement in front of a mirror can be helpful.
Push your jaw out forward, like you’re exaggerating an underbite. Repeat 8-10 times and rest.
Jaw Opening with Resistance
Putting one thumb or finger an inch or so under your chin.
Slowly open your jaw until it meets the resistance of your finger.
Resist the opening with your finger. This resistance is like adding weights to an exercise. Hold for 5-10 seconds, then rest.
Sitting or standing with your feet flat on the floor, push your head back and tuck your chin slightly like you’re making a double chin.
This is a small movement—imagine you are making the back of your neck long while the front of your neck gets slightly shorter.
Repeat for 8-10 repetitions and rest.
Other Options for Treatment of TMJ
There are many other ways that you can try to relieve your jaw pain and help to improve joint function, and it is important to recognize factors that might contribute to your pain.
Other treatment options include:
Soft tissue massage to the large masseter muscles on the side of your jaw can target and release trigger points or tiny points of tension in the muscle. You can practice this technique on your own or with the help of a PT or massage therapist.
Sitting with a forward head posture can put undue pressure on the jaw and worsen TMD symptoms. Performing exercises to counter “Upper Cross Syndrome” can sometimes help to relieve TMJ jaw pain.
Warm compress heat applied to the muscles around the joint can help to relax muscle tension if your jaw pain keeps you from sleeping or resting.
Having the upper and lower teeth slightly apart is considered a ‘resting’ position; avoid clenching during the day. If you grind your teeth at night, consider wearing or getting fitted for a night guard if needed.
Eat a diet of easier-to-chew foods and avoid things like gummy candy, chewing gum, or tough meats.
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or muscle relaxers may be helpful if chronic pain becomes unbearable. Talk to your doctor to explore your options if other treatments don’t help.
Jaw pain can be debilitating and frustrating when you don’t know the cause. If symptoms are severe, talk to your doctor as soon as possible to rule out any potentially serious problems, especially if you have a heart condition or facial swelling.
If you’re practicing self-treatment or seeing a physical therapist to address your TMJ pain, it’s essential to be patient: jaw pain may not always respond quickly to treatment, but persistence and awareness are vital in getting to the bottom of your TMJ pain.
Sandler, N. A., Ziccardi, V., & Ochs, M. (1995). Differential diagnosis of jaw pain in the elderly. Journal of the American Dental Association (1939), 126(9), 1263–1272. https://doi.org/10.14219/jada.archive.1995.0361
Yadav, S., Yang, Y., Dutra, E. H., Robinson, J. L., & Wadhwa, S. (2018). Temporomandibular Joint Disorders in Older Adults. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, 66(6), 1213–1217. https://doi.org/10.1111/jgs.15354
Michelotti, A., Steenks, M. H., Farella, M., Parisini, F., Cimino, R., & Martina, R. (2004). The additional value of a home physical therapy regimen versus patient education only for the treatment of myofascial pain of the jaw muscles: short-term results of a randomized clinical trial. Journal of orofacial pain, 18(2).
TMJ Exercises. (n.d.). Oxford University Hospitals. Retrieved February 1, 2023, from https://www.ouh.nhs.uk/patient-guide/leaflets/files/12128Ptmj.pdf