Are jaw issues causing your neck pain?

As many as 80% of people experience neck pain at some point in their lives. This pain can often be attributed to a sports injury, workplace strain or a bad night’s sleep. But with temporomandibular joint issues (TMJ), the pain can start in your jaw. How is this possible?

The neck bone’s connected to the jaw bone

The temporomandibular joints connect your lower jawbone to your skull. Muscles attached to these joints allow you to talk, chew and swallow. Because these joints connect your neck and jaw, muscle tension from your jaw can move down to your neck. This tension can manifest in aches, spasms, tight muscles and reduced flexibility.

To put it more simply, jaw pain can easily become a pain in the neck.

As many as 70% of neck problems can be related to TMJ. Poor neck posture, usually identified by rounded shoulders and your chin being pushed forward, can also cause issues in your jaw.

What causes TMJ?

The causes of specific TMJ disorders aren’t always clear. Beyond an obvious injury, there can be multiple sources for a problem, including:

  • Stress and anxiety (this can cause jaw clenching and teeth grinding)
  • Misalignment of a disc in the temporomandibular joint
  • Dislocated jaw
  • Arthritis

What are the symptoms of TMJ?

TMJ can manifest in ways other than jaw and neck pain. You might also experience:

  • Pain in the ear, face or shoulders
  • Discomfort when using your mouth (chewing, swallowing, yawning and talking)
  • A clicking or grinding sound, especially when chewing or yawning
  • Pain or stiffness that keeps you from opening or closing your mouth all the way
  • Headaches

How is TMJ treated?

Because TMJ can have many causes, determining the proper treatment can be difficult. Symptoms of TMJ may go away on their own. If not, you can try these self-care and nonsurgical treatments. 

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    Try stress-relieving techniques. From exercise to meditation, anything that helps you relax can help ease TMJ tension. 

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    Eat soft foods. Foods that are hard to chew can overwork the muscles in your neck and jaw, just like overworking any other muscle in your body. 

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    Take over-the-counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen. For serious pain, you can take acetaminophen and ibuprofen together. Be sure to check with your physician first!  

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    Practice good posture. If your posture is putting pressure on your neck, that can cause TMJ issues. Fortunately, identifying and solving posture issues is simple when you know what to look for.  

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    Apply heat or ice packs. If your TMJ is caused by sore muscles, you can treat them as you would any strained or overworked muscle. Use ice for initial treatment of pain and inflammation and then switch to heat after inflammation has subsided and you’re only experiencing stiffness. 

If pain persists, your dentist or physician may recommend:

  • Physical therapy
  • Jaw exercises
  • Prescription medication
  • A nighttime mouthguard

In rare cases, when no other methods bring relief, surgery may be recommended.

The daily grind

People with TMJ also often experience bruxism, the medical term for clenching or grinding teeth. Because TMJ and bruxism share many common symptoms, identifying the correct condition and its causes can be complex.

As with TMJ, stress is one of the main causes of bruxism. Bruxism shares many symptoms with TMJ, including:

  • Headaches
  • Damaged, loose or even lost teeth
  • Disruption to your sleep

Find ways to reduce stress to help reduce teeth grinding and clenching as well. Your dentist may recommend a custom-made nightguard for you to wear while you sleep as well. 


No matter the cause, if you’re experiencing neck and jaw pain, consider a professional consultation to identify the cause of the problem and get treatment.