The jaw is one of those body parts that’s easy to take for granted until it hurts—and then it’s all you can think about. When jaw pain makes it difficult to chew, talk, or move due to shock-like sensations, sharp stabs, or a dull ache that just won’t go away, it can be concerning and life-disrupting.
One form of jaw pain to take very seriously is pulsating, hard-to-pinpoint pain in the side of your jaw, which could indicate—of all things—a heart attack. “Similar to the pain that a patient can experience in the left arm during a heart attack, this pain can also move into the lower corner of the jaw below the ear,” explains Isabel Moreno Hay, D.D.S., Ph.D., division chief and program director of the Orofacial Pain Program and assistant professor in the College of Dentistry at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. Because it can be life-threatening, if your jaw pain comes along with other symptoms of a heart attack like dizziness, shortness of breath, cold sweats, or indigestion, seek medical attention immediately.
Otherwise, reasons for jaw pain are often easy to identify. “Toothaches are the most common cause of face pain, followed by temporomandibular disorders,” says Dr. Moreno Hay. Temporomandibular disorders (TMD) cause pain and discomfort in your temporomandibular joints (TMJ), the moving hinges located in front of your ears that connect your jawbone to your skull and allow you to open and close your mouth, chew, and clench your teeth.
While mild jaw pain can sometimes be managed with self-care measures like applying a moist, warm towel or cold compress to the area, if the pain is persistent or you can’t open or close your jaw completely, it’s time to call a doctor or dentist. Be prepared to talk about where you’re having pain, how long you’ve been having it, what seems to trigger it, and any other symptoms you’ve been having in your head, mouth, ears, or neck, says Dr. Moreno Hay. After an exam of your jaw joints, muscles, and mouth, you may need an x-rays, MRI, CT scan, other tests, or a referral to a specialist for a definitive diagnosis.
In the meantime, you can get an idea of what might be going on with your face by perusing these jaw pain causes below, ranging from the most common culprits to rare but possible explanations.
1. Something’s wrong with your teeth.
Many common dental problems like cavities, an infected tooth, or gum disease can cause pain in your teeth, gums, or jaw, says Dr. Moreno Hay. If you’re experiencing throbbing tooth or gum pain that’s worse with exposure to cold or hot foods or drinks, the sooner you can see a dentist the better, as many of these issues tend to get harder (and more expensive) to treat over time.
After a dental exam, you may need x-rays as well as advanced teeth cleaning, antibiotics, prescription mouthwashes or gels, a root canal, or surgery to get relief from a toothache or gum…