Interviewer: Why does my jaw pop, and do I need to do something about that? That's coming up next, on The Scope.
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Interviewer: Dr. Gary Lowder is a practicing dentist and a professor at the University of Utah School of Dentistry and has 30 years of TMJ experience to boot. The question that I would imagine you get a lot is: "My jaw pops. Is that something I should worry about?" What's the answer to that?
Jaw Popping: Two Types
Dr. Lowder: There are actually two kinds of popping that patients report. One is when they're almost at their widest opening, like when you when you yawn. This type of popping is more of a subluxation where the lower jaw bone passes over a ridge in the upper jaw bone, and that's a normal occurrence caused by just a hyperextended lower jaw.
The other type of popping is the one that's more concerning, and it involves the displacement of the cartilage-like disc which is inside the joint. This type of popping occurs usually quietly when you're closing. The disc will slip forward of the lower jaw bone. Then when you go to open again, there will be a louder pop or crack that happens when the disc repositions itself onto the condyle of the lower jaw.
Interviewer: So, talking or chewing, is that when this happens?
Dr. Lowder: Yes. It can happen
Interviewer: And even just opening your mouth.
Dr. Lowder: It can even be bothersome to other people at the table where you're eating. They can hear it, and they'll wonder what's going on, and that's usually because that disc is dislocating on closure and then reducing back to normal position on opening. If it's painful, it's usually painful because the ligament that controls the disc is being stretched, or the muscles that control the jaw movement are also being affected by that dysfunction.
Interviewer: So, if it's painful, is that something to be concerned about, and if it's not painful, as long as my dinner mates can handle the noise, its okay? Or should I have them both looked at?
Eat Softer Food & Relax Your Jaw
Dr. Lowder: I think if it's painful, it should definitely be addressed. One thing that you could try if it's a new episode, and it's never happened before, is just reduce your jaw function. Go to a softer diet. If you catch yourself clenching, try to relax the jaw and maintain a lips together, teeth apart posture.
Interviewer: But what if I like a good steak? Is there any way you can fix it, or am I just going to have to live with this jaw popping then?
Dr. Lowder: Depends on how good the steak is.
Dr. Lowder: If you get the tender cuts of meat and cut it in smaller pieces
Interviewer: All right.
Dr. Lowder: ...you'll learn what to tolerate, but you have to go by what your jaw will tolerate. If there's a food that you're eating that causes your jaw to hurt, you need to avoid that food in that form, at least until your jaw's starting to feel more relaxed.
An injury to the jaw can create these popping and clicking episodes, and if it's the first event, I usually tell patients to give it at least two to three weeks to see if it will resolve on its own. And with a softer diet, they may find that things get back to normal again. If that doesn't happen, then you should go in and see your dentist and find out if there's something more that needs to be done.
Interviewer: Could long-term damage be caused if I don't do something about it?
Dr. Lowder: It can, especially if there is pain. It usually signals strain to the muscles or an inflammatory condition which can eventually lead to some arthritic degeneration in the joint, and then that starts to limit function and creates changes in your bite. So it needs to be addressed under those circumstances.
Jaw Pain Treatment
Interviewer: So if I understand correctly, if I start developing a popping in my jaw, and it's painful, back off on what I'm eating, eat some softer foods for a couple of weeks, and if it still continues, that would be the time to see my dentist, or should I go in right away?
Dr. Lowder: I think if it's a first episode that has never happened before, then it's valid to wait two or three weeks just to see if it will go away on its own. If it were to reoccur in another month, then there's something going on that your body's trying to signal to you that the stresses in those areas are exceeding its ability to recover.
Interviewer: And then what will you do to fix that?
Dr. Lowder: What I usually do is to initiate use of an inter-oral appliance that we call a dental splint, and it creates a buffer for the jaw and the teeth to function to. It needs to be adjusted properly so that it is maximum stability, and it doesn't create a new problem for the muscles and joints to deal with. But if it is adjusted properly, it will often relieve the muscle strain and also decompress the joint tissues so that the inflammation has a chance to resolve. I think the real key here is if you have jaw issues that are painful, it is worth going and getting an evaluation by a qualified dentist who can manage TMJ-type issues so they don't cause worse problems later.
Announcer: Have a question about a medical procedure? Want to learn more about a health condition? With over 2,000 interviews with our physicians and specialists, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll find what you want to know. Check it out at TheScopeRadio.com.
updated: June 1, 2018
originally published: May 20, 2015
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