There are plenty of TMJ symptoms that are well-known and common amongst sufferers — jaw pain, headaches, and tinnitus are all issues that most TMJ patients can commiserate about. But there are other symptoms that are rarer, generating more fear than actual occurrences. A locked jaw is one of those rarer, scarier symptoms. Many people associate a locked jaw with TMJ, when in reality most TMJ patients will never experience it.
Jaw Lock 101
So what exactly does “locked jaw” mean? First of all, it’s important not to confuse this TMJ symptom with lockjaw, also called trismus. Trismus is caused by muscle spasms and is most commonly associated with tetanus. A locked jaw, on the other hand, is a problem with the joint, not the muscles.
Your two temporomandibular joints are delicate, complicated things with a challenging job. Unlike a simple joint like the elbow or fingers, the joints in your jaw need to enable a wide range of motion. You can move your jaw side to side, up and down, and back and forth. All of this motion is enabled by a disk of cartilage that sits between the two bones of the joint, facilitating smooth movement.
However, in people with TMJ, that disc sometimes comes out of place. This displacement is fairly common (in fact, it’s the cause of the “popping and clicking” sensations that many TMJ sufferers experience regularly), but the ligaments in the jaw usually manage to pull the disc back into place. When the ligaments can’t do this, that’s when a locked jaw occurs. When the disc that enables jaw movement is out of place, the jaw can become stuck open or closed.
Treating a Locked Jaw
If you think you have a locked jaw, the first step is to do your best to get it unlocked so that you can relieve pain, regain regular jaw function, and place a call to your dentist. The panic and discomfort that accompany a locked jaw can actually create more tension in the jaw and prevent it from releasing, so your first priority should be to try and relax. Then, applying heat and gently wiggling the jaw back and forth can sometimes coax the disc back into place. If you can’t get your jaw unlocked with these methods, don’t use force, or you could cause even more damage.
Of course, whether the jaw comes unlocked on its own or not, it’s imperative that you make an appointment with an experienced TMJ dentist like Dr. Lee as soon as possible. A locked jaw is a sign of a damaged articular disc, and you need treatment from a professional to treat symptoms and reduce the likelihood of a repeat incident in the future.