Blog | Thursday, March 16, 2017

Face pain? It could be the jaw

In primary care we commonly see patients with ear pain, sinus pain or headache. It's often hard for patients to self-diagnose where the pain is originating and they want treatment for sinus or ear infections. When examination of the ear or sinuses doesn't show a problem, many times we find out that it is from the jaw.

Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) or temporomandibular disorder (TMD) is a common cause of facial pain and can affect as many as 10 to 15% of adults. It presents with pain, ear discomfort, headache, and jaw pain. It is caused by inflammation in the joint that opens the jaw, right in front of the ear and sometimes there can be a snapping of the jaw as it is widely opened. You can think of this joint as a hinge that connects the jawbone to the skull. Like any joint, it can get inflamed and the surrounding muscles of the jaw hurt.

The treatment for TMJ is resting the jaw from wide opening and anti-inflammatory medication. Most of the time it resolves within about two weeks. Some patients get relief with a mouth splint that keeps them from grinding or clenching the jaw at night. For severe cases, physical therapy with ultrasound and ice can help. Rarely a corticosteroid injection or Botox can relieve pain and relax the muscles.

Remember, not all face pain is from sinuses or ears and antibiotics will not help if it is TMJ pain. Usually a course of anti-inflammatory medication (ibuprofen) is all that is needed.

This post originally appeared at Everything Health. Toni Brayer, MD, FACP, is an ACP Internist editorial board member who blogs at EverythingHealth, designed to address the rapid changes in science, medicine, health and healing in the 21st Century.