If You Think You Have Lockjaw, It Could Actually Be Jaw Lock or TMJ

Updated on August 16, 2021

Sometimes people experience pain in their jaw, and their mobility is limited or non-existent. People might assume they have a lockjaw, but it might actually be TMJ causing jaw lock. It might seem like semantics, but lockjaw and jaw lock have different causes and treatments. Keep reading to learn about both of these ailments and determine what’s going on.

What is Lockjaw?

Lockjaw is pain and stiffness in the jaw and facial muscles that cause jaw cramping and makes it hard to close and open your mouth. When people are exposed to bacteria, it can cause an infection that produces potent toxins that affect the nervous system.

Tetanus bacteria aren’t the only thing that can cause lockjaw. It can also be a side effect of taking medication. Treatment for some types of cancer can cause lockjaw as well.

People that have lockjaw can also experience headaches, earaches, and jaw pain.

What is Jaw Lock?

Jaw lock happens when the lower jaw bone gets locked due to a problem with the temporomandibular joint (TMJ). TMJ is the joint located under each ear that connects the jaw bone to the skull, close to the ear canal. Sometimes the muscles and tissues around the TMJ can become sore and inflamed due to overuse or trauma such as whiplash or a hit on the head.

Jaw lock happens when the TMJ disc cartilage is damaged, causing joint displacement. The locking that occurs can be intermittent or long-lasting.

What causes Jaw Lock?

Jaw lock can be the result of TMD. Temporomandibular disorders (TMD) are issues with the jaw and the muscles in the face that control it.

Possible causes of TMD are:

  • Stress that causes clenched teeth and tight facial muscles
  • Arthritis in joint
  • Dislocation of soft cushion or disc between ball and socket of joint
  • Grinding or clenching teeth
  • Whiplash or a heavy blow to the head

TMD occurs more in women than men and the typical age range is 20 to 40 years old.

People experiencing TMD will have the following symptoms:

  • Swelling on the side of the face
  • Difficulty chewing or a sudden uncomfortable bite where the upper and lower teeth don’t feel like they fit together properly
  • A tired feeling in the face
  • Grating, popping, or clicking sounds in the jaw joint when the mouth opens or closes or when chewing
  • Jaw gets stuck or locked, with mouth open or closed
  • Issues when mouth open wide
  • Pain or tenderness in the face, neck, shoulders, jaw joint area, and around the ear when chewing, speaking, or opening mouth wide

Relieving Jaw Tightness

For those who suffer from TMD or jaw lock, there are things that they can do to alleviate the pain and discomfort. Some of these solutions are doctor prescribed; others you can do on your own.

Exercises to Relieve Jaw Tightness

For those experiencing jaw tightness, here are exercises that can loosen up the jaw.

Manual jaw opening exercise

  1. Repeat open and closing the mouth several times to start loosening the jaw
  2. Place fingers on top front four bottom teeth
  3. Slowly pull down the bottom jaw until there’s slight discomfort, hold for 30 seconds
  4. Repeat three times to start, work up to 12 repetitions

Jaw joint stretch

  1. Press tip of tongue into the roof of mouth directly behind top front teeth without touching them
  2. Apply gentle pressure, slowly open mouth as wide as possible, then close shut
  3. Repeat up to 10 times. Stop if discomfort experienced

Smile Stretch

  1. Smile the widest smile without feeling pain or tightness
  2. While smiling, slowly open jaw an additional two inches
  3. Take a deep breath in through the mouth, then exhale while releasing a smile
  4. Repeat ten times

Mouth Guards for Tight Jaw

A dentist can help identify the right mouth guard. There are teeth guards for those who grind their teeth, as well as guards for joint disorders. The dentist can determine whether the tight jaw is because of teeth grinding or something else.


Massaging the jaw can increase blood flow and reduce tightness in the jaw muscles. The massage should be done several times a day, including before bed, to help with better sleep.

Other Treatments

If the treatments listed above don’t help sufficiently, other treatments will relieve jaw pain and discomfort and increase jaw mobility. Talk to a doctor to determine which treatment will be the best option for your case.

  • Shortwave diathermy laser treatment
  • Acupuncture
  • Head and neck stretches
  • Botox
  • Prescription medications, antidepressants, muscle relaxers
  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or other over-the-counter pain relievers
  • Hot or cold compress for jaw muscles


Jaw lock and lockjaw sound like the same thing, and the side effects may be similar, but the causes are very different.

It is more common to be suffering from a jaw lock than to have a lockjaw. Lockjaw is a side effect of being exposed to bacteria. Those who haven’t had a snake bite or an injury caused by a tetanus infection are more likely to have TMD and experience jaw lock. People taking prescribed medication or going through cancer treatment should talk to their physician to see if that’s the cause of the jaw lock.

Prescribed medication, dental work, or a splint or night guard mouthpiece are excellent therapies for jaw lock. There are other treatments that a dentist may recommend. These treatments include ultrasound therapy, trigger-point injections, radio wave therapy, low-level laser therapy, transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, or surgery.

Whether suffering from lockjaw or jaw lock, there is relief from the pain. Those who are experiencing stiffness in their jaw or limited mobility should seek professional advice from their dentist. Once the dentist determines the cause, the appropriate solution will be clear, and jaw stiffness and pain will soon be a thing of the past.

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