The human jaw is the most complex joint in the body, and thus prone to some interesting and unique issues of its own. A common cause of concern is a cracking, clicking, or snapping sound when the jaw moves, particularly when it opens wide. This may or may not be accompanied by discomfort or pain, depending on the situation.
So why is your jaw cracking? The answer most likely likes in your temporomandibular joint, or TMJ. TMJ complications affect more than 10 million Americans annually, occurring more commonly in women than in men. In order to understand why your jaw may be cracking, it’s important that we start with a basic understanding of how the TMJ works overall.
About the TMJ
The temporomandibular joint is an amazing thing, capable of a wider range of motion than any other joint in the human body: up and down, back and forth, side to side, even circling. This range of motion is due to its unique design: a hinge between your skull and jawbone, connected by muscles and ligaments with soft cartilage disks between the bones to absorb impact and prevent damage. This complexity, and in particular that cartilage disk, are likely the roots of your cracking jaw.
So, Why Is My Jaw Cracking?
To start, there are two kinds of jaw cracks, and we need to distinguish between them. The first and most common occurs when the jaw opens fully. This tends to be a mild crack or click which is caused by two ridges of bone in the jaw and skull passing each other. This is a fairly normal occurrence in a hyper-extended lower jaw, and as long as there’s no discomfort it’s no cause for concern.
The other kind of cracking is a bit more serious, occurring during a normal range of motion and generally caused by a displacement of that soft disk of cartilage that cushions jaw movement. Generally what happens is the disk slipping out of place as the jaw moves during a normal action like talking or chewing. This may be accompanied by pain or discomfort.
So what causes the cartilage pad to slip out of place? It could be any one of a number of things; the science isn’t fully understood. Trauma like a blow to the jaw, teeth grinding, stress, and muscle tension are all possible culprits. If left untreated, the condition can worsen and even cause permanent damage, so if symptoms persist for more than a couple of weeks it’s time to consult a medical professional. In the meantime, you may want to try some of the following to help reduce discomfort and alleviate other symptoms:
- Eat soft foods, avoiding anything hard or overly chewy.
- Alternate applying ice and moist heat on your joint.
- Avoid excessive jaw movements – wide yawning, chewing gum, yelling or shouting, or taking big bites.
- Practice stress-reducing techniques.
Seeking Medical Treatment
As we said earlier, if your jaw pain and cracking last for more than a week or two, it’s time to seek medical treatment. Your dentist or doctor will probably want to conduct an examination and will likely take some x rays to see what’s going on. Once they’ve gotten a better understanding of the condition of your TMJ, they’ll suggest a course of treatment. This will likely be a combination of things: avoiding strain or pressure on the jaw for a while, anti-inflammatory medication, some stretching exercises, or maybe physical therapy.
Your TMJ is a big part of your overall oral health, and needs the same care and attention you’d give your teeth or gums. If you’re having problems or recurring pain, it’s important to mention that to your medical care provider on your next visit. Like a healthy smile, your TMJ should last a lifetime!