Trismus: A Side-Effect of Chemoradiation

Trismus, also known as lockjaw, is very common among people who are undergoing treatment for cancers of the head and neck. According to the National Cancer Institute, about 30 percent of people who receive chemoradiation experience this side-effect. Lockjaw can have quite an effect on your oral health, but with the help of your dentist, this condition can be managed and prevented from progressing.


Chemoradiation involves the concurrent use of chemotherapy and radiation therapy to treat cancer. Chemotherapy treatments use drugs to kill cancer cells, whereas radiation treatments use ionizing radiation for the same purpose. These two treatments don't just affect your cancer cells, though; they can affect the healthy cells inside your mouth, too. As a result, radiation can lead to fibrosis, a thickening and scarring of the tissues in the chewing muscles. This thickening decreases range of motion in your jaw, resulting in lockjaw.


If you develop this side-effect, according to the Canadian Cancer Society, you will notice your jaw feels stiff. Opening your mouth may be painful and you may also not be able to open to what feels like its normal width.

Oral Health Concerns

Lockjaw often makes it hard to perform everyday tasks like eating, swallowing and talking. For this reason, it can also lead to a variety of oral health problems because of your inability to brush and floss your teeth properly when you have decreased range of motion in your jaw. If you aren't able to clean your teeth thoroughly, keep in mind you'll be at risk of dental problems such as tooth decay and gum disease.


The best way to deal with trismus is to avoid it, so your dentist's focus will be on preventing the condition altogether. Be sure to visit your dentist before your chemoradiation treatment starts, and let him or her know how your mouth feels along the way. With this in mind, your dentist can teach you exercises and stretches to perform while undergoing treatment to help you maintain your jaw's normal mechanics. If the condition does develop, it can be managed, but not cured, so do your best to follow your dentist's directions regarding prevention.


Because lockjaw makes keeping your teeth clean troublesome, your dentist can actually recommend methods of oral hygiene that are easier than a traditional routine. For example, if you can't open your mouth wide enough to use floss, you might benefit from using a long-handled interdental brush instead. These brushes have a small, bristled head that you insert between your teeth. It may feel strange at first, but studies have shown interdental brushes are effective under the circumstances. Your dentist may also recommend a mouthwash such as Colgate Total® Advanced Pro-Shield® to help keep your mouth clean throughout the day.

Trismus can be an unpleasant side-effect of chemoradiation, but your dentist can help you prevent it. If you're undergoing chemoradiation, pay him a visit before your treatment starts for basic preventative advice.

This article is intended to promote understanding of and knowledge about general oral health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your dentist or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.

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