When you experience jaw or facial pain, it is normal to suspect immediately that your teeth are the cause. Even though this may be true in many cases, there are also several medical conditions that can be contributing factors; this possibility makes diagnosis and treatment much more difficult. It is important that you consult both a dental specialist and your physician.
Treat the Cause, Not the Symptoms
Many patients who experience chronic jaw pain try to treat themselves with over-the-counter painkillers or prescription narcotics intended for the use of other family members. To properly treat the pain, you need a diagnosis; painkillers address the symptoms and not the cause. This can create other problems for the patient that complicate diagnosis. There are serious side effects from the overuse of painkillers: Taking excessive amounts of over-the-counter ibuprofen or acetaminophen can cause kidney necrosis and liver failure, respectively. Abuse of prescription narcotics can lead to addiction.
If you are experiencing jaw pain, it is very important for your dentist or oral surgeon to conduct a thorough exam. This often includes dental X-rays, CAT scans and sometimes blood work. A dental origin of the pain should be ruled out before blood work is performed.
Potential Causes and Treatments
The dental causes of jaw or facial pain include decayed or abscessed teeth, gum infection (periodontal abscess), teeth grinding, temporomandibular joint dysfunction (TMJ) and injury to your jaws. These causes can be treated by your dentist or oral and maxillofacial surgeon. Decayed or abscessed teeth will be treated with root canal, fillings, or extractions. Gum infections will be treated with antibiotics and deep scaling.
Temporomandibular joint dysfunction is the most difficult problem to treat because it has multiple possible causes. The pain could originate in the muscles of the jaw or a dysfunction of the joint. Misalignment of the teeth could be another contributing factor and can be corrected with braces. If the cause of the pain is due to the muscles, it may be treated with muscle relaxants, anti-inflammatory drugs and a mouth guard. Dysfunction of the joint may be treated with anti-inflammatory drugs and arthroscopic surgery.
Trauma to the jaws can cause injury to the bones, muscles, temporomandibular joint and teeth. These types of injuries can be treated with muscle relaxants, anti-inflammatory drugs and surgery. Additional medical causes of jaw or facial pain include dislocation of the jaw, arthritis, angina, cluster headaches, ear infections, cysts or tumors, heart attack, sinus infection, migraine, stress and trigeminal neuralgia.
Heart attack can be the most serious cause of facial pain. People most often experience chest pain with a heart attack, but this pain radiates to the jaw. Some heart attack patients will experience pain only in the jaw. Another condition that can cause jaw pain is angina; angina occurs when the heart muscle lacks oxygen.
Cluster headaches, ear infections and migraines are all conditions that cause pain to radiate to the jaws. Cyst or tumors in the jaws and sinus infections will cause pain that radiates to the teeth. Trigeminal neuralgia is a condition that causes excruciating jaw and facial pain. The pain is short-lasting and only on one side of the face. It can also be shooting, stabbing or electrical in nature. This condition may also mimic dental pain. Trigeminal neuralgia is often misdiagnosed, and many patients undergo unwarranted dental procedures. This condition can be treated with medication and appropriate surgical procedures.
As you can see, jaw pain has many causes. It is important not to treat only the symptoms but to seek professional help. Your dentist and physician should be involved early on to diagnose the problem and to develop the proper treatment plan.