Young redhead woman in pain, portraying TMJ issues

Why Does My Jaw Keep Locking?

My jaw keeps locking. The pain was so bad last night that I couldn’t sleep. I took ibuprofen and put a warm compress on the side of my face to get a little relief, but I know this will not go away by itself. My dentist took impressions of my mouth four months ago and gave me a night guard, but it is not helping.

The pain interferes with eating, talking, working, sleeping, everything. Do I need an adjustment to the night guard? Or should I skip another visit to my dentist and get another opinion on why my jaw keeps locking? Thank you. Brielle from Chico, CA


Thank you for your question. We are sorry that you are experiencing such discomfort and pain. As you may know, jaw locking is often a symptom of temporomandibular joint disorder. We will explain why your jaw continually locks and what to do about it.

Why Does Your Jaw Keep Locking?

Jaw locking, or trismus, is often related to temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder. Other conditions can cause jaw locking, including:

  • Trauma
  • Oral surgery
  • Infection
  • Cancer
  • Radiation treatment for head or throat cancer

How Can You Find the Cause of Jaw Locking?

You can find the cause of repeated jaw locking by scheduling an exam from a dentist with post-graduate TMJ training. Depending on the severity of the issue and the tests you have already had, a thorough examination includes:

  • Analyzing your jaw joints and bite
  • Bloodwork
  • CT scan
  • Measuring your mouth opening
  • MRI
  • X-rays

Visit the TMJ Association’s website for details on the importance of ruling out other conditions.

Are Your Symptoms Related to TMJ?

A trained dentist can determine if your symptoms are TMJ related. Occasional jaw popping and clicking are not unusual and do not necessarily mean that you have a TMJ disorder. Still, you might have a TMJ disorder if you experience these signs and symptoms:

  • A bite that feels off
  • Chronic headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Ear fullness or pressure
  • Earaches
  • Jaw locking, pain, or stiffness
  • Neck and shoulder pain
  • Ringing in your ears (tinnitus)
  • Vision problems

What Is the Right Treatment for TMJ?

The proper TMJ treatment depends on the cause and severity of your signs and symptoms. A dentist may recommend any of these methods:

  • Pain reliever
  • Orthotics
  • Orthodontics
  • Splint
  • Night guard
  • Dental restorations, such as implants, crowns, or bridges
  • Warm or cold compresses
  • Temporarily eating soft foods only to minimize chewing and let your jaw rest

Schedule a Second-Opinion Appointment

If you are experiencing ongoing jaw pain and locking, search online for a dentist with advanced TMJ training. After an exam, the dentist will determine whether your concerns are TMJ related or if you need further care from another medical professional.

Salem, Massachusetts, dentist Dr. Randy Burba sponsors this post.