Jaw osteoarthritis – symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment

Last modified: December 11, 2019

If you wake up with a pain in your jaw or you notice it is difficult to chew, it could mean that have pain in the jaw muscles or joints. The most common cause of this is clenching your jaw at night, which usually causes you to grind your teeth. This pain is usually characterized by tense muscles and the pain stretches up towards your temples. The first thing to do is to contact a dentist who specializes in this area. However, a pain in your jaw could also be caused by osteoarthritis of the jaw.

If the symptoms are caused by jaw osteoarthritis, it means that the cartilage in your jaw joints has broken down. This may have developed as a result of a previous trauma to your jaw, although the most common cause is prolonged misalignment. Common signs and symptoms of the disease include stiffness and pain in the jaw joints, i.e. it is difficult to open your mouth and to chew. Osteoarthritis is a disease which mainly affects joints that are under strain from putting your entire body weight on them, such as knees and hips. It can also occur in smaller joints, however this is less common.

Signs of osteoarthritis in the jaw

If you feel discomfort around your jaw, if you have stiff jaw muscles and it is hard to yawn, this may be due to osteoarthritis in your jaw joint. The disease is more common in women than men. In most people, symptoms appear gradually and you won’t notice them immediately. However, if you hear a crackling or creaking noise when you open your jaw or when you chew, this is a sign that you should seek treatment. Osteoarthritis is a chronic disease that usually causes fatigue and depression in the long term. The symptoms of osteoarthritis in the jaw can be summarized as follows:

●     Pain in the jaw

●     Stiffness of the jaw

●     Crackling or creaking of the jaw when you chew

●     Unexplained headaches or toothache

●     Unusual fatigue and depression

Osteoarthritis in the jaw has similar symptoms to rheumatoid arthritis in the jaw, an illness that also affects the joints. Rheumatoid arthritis is usually more aggressive with long-term stiffness, mainly in the morning, and pronounced joint inflammation, known as synovitis. Rheumatoid arthritis affects many joints in the body and the jaw joint is one of the last joints affected.

Causes of osteoarthritis in the jaw

A common cause of osteoarthritis in the jaw could be that the person affected has put their jaw under excessive strain over a very long period. For example, this could come from a habit of clenching the jaws or grinding the teeth. Many people have a tendency to do this at night without being aware of it. If you think that this is the cause of sore jaw joints, you should visit your dentist to have it checked.

Osteoarthritis in the jaw can also be a form of post-traumatic osteoarthritis. This means that the disease has developed from earlier damage to the joint or trauma to your jaw, for example a punch. Heredity is also a factor that can affect the development of osteoarthritis.

Diagnosing osteoarthritis in the jaw

A diagnosis of osteoarthritis in the jaw can be made clinically by a doctor or physiotherapist who will summarize the symptoms you are feeling and review the patient’s previous medical history. In the past, osteoarthritis was often diagnosed using X-ray, but this is not always necessary. It can also be misleading, as early stages of osteoarthritis are not visible on a conventional X-ray.

Treating osteoarthritis

Obtaining a dental guard is a very effective treatment for osteoarthritis of the jaw. A dental guard is usually made of plastic and covers the teeth and gums. The dental guard helps to counteract the damaging jaw movements which usually occur at night from involuntary grinding of the teeth. Dental guards are made by a dentist using a special material to create an impression of your teeth for the guard. It is also possible to work on the jaw muscles, for example using stretching exercises. Sometimes it is necessary to review the patient’s eating habits to reduce the need to chew tough food.

Other treatment methods for osteoarthritis in the jaw

If the patient feels that the osteoarthritis in the jaw is very painful, they can take standard pain relievers containing paracetamol or anti-inflammatory medicines, known as NSAIDs, in the periods when the pain is most intensive. It is also possible to inject cortisone into the jaw joints, which is a local anti-inflammatory medication. However, this should not be seen as a long-term solution.

In rare cases, the patient may need jaw surgery, but this is seen as a last resort when all other treatments have failed.

Go back to the home page to read more about osteoarthritis.