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Older man with painful jaw

Ways to Unlock a Locked Jaw (TMJ)

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Historically, “lockjaw” referred to a symptom of tetanus, the bacterial infection. Today, lockjaw is also commonly used to refer to TMD or TMJ, a common disorder that affects a nerve, which runs through the face and jaw. The hinge joint of the jaw slides off track and makes chewing and talking, among other things, very painful, not to mention difficult.

Lockjaw, medically known as trismus, is more widespread that one might think. The muscle spasms in the jaw are caused by a variety of different triggers, such as eating and speaking. This problem can interfere with your daily life, making it difficult or even impossible to open your mouth. Fortunately, lockjaw is typically temporary and not permanent, but that doesn’t make it any less painful or frustrating to deal with regularly.

Medical dictionaries call it the inability to open your mouth during a muscle spasm, but it can refer to any limited mobility of the mouth and jaw. Popular medical dictionaries call lockjaw “a motor disturbance of the trigeminal nerve, especially spasm of the masticatory muscles, with difficulty in opening the mouth (lockjaw); a characteristic early symptom of tetanus” and “spasms of the muscles of mastication resulting in the inability to open the oral cavity; often symptomatic of pericoronitis.”

If you find yourself with a locked jaw, first apply a warm compress to your jaw where the joints meet. This can assist in pain reduction, as warm, moist heat is known to relax your muscles, including the ones that cause a jaw to lock up. In some cases, your doctor can prescribe muscle relaxers to unlock your jaw, especially if the reason for your lockjaw is that your muscles are tense in the first place. If you constantly clench your jaw, you’re more likely to have tense, contracted facial muscles. The same goes for a prescription anti-inflammatory if your lockjaw stems from swelling or an abscess.

If you experience lockjaw on a regular basis, the majority of dentists will tell you to let your body do the work to undo the locked-up muscles naturally. It can be extremely scary the first time it happens, especially since you’re not sure what to do or what to expect. So the best thing to do is relax and try some TMJ exercises, working up to opening and closing your mouth as wide as possible. Repeat the opening and closing motion until there is no pain accompanying the movement. Next, open up your mouth and move your jaw from side to side. First start on the left moving to the right, and then move to the right side first, moving your jaw to the left.

Another approach to unlocking a jaw or treating TMJ problems is TENS, in which an instrument with electrodes is placed on the TMJ joints. The electrical current stimulates the jaw muscles, causing joints to decompress and muscles to relax.

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