Why Is My Jaw Making Cracking Noises, and How Can I Treat It?

 Jaw cracking” refers to a clicking or snapping sound in your jaw. It’s also known as “jaw popping.”

Often, the sound occurs with jaw pain and discomfort. You might also have a hard time moving your jaw, depending on the underlying condition.

Jaw cracking usually isn’t a cause for concern, though. It can even happen when you widely yawn or open your mouth.

The exception is if you recently sustained a facial injury, which can dislocate or break your jaw. In this case, you’ll need emergency help.

Read on to learn about the possible causes of jaw cracking and when you should see a doctor.

The potential causes of jaw cracking range in severity and type. They include:

Temporomandibular joint disorder

Your temporomandibular joint (TMJ) attaches your jawbone to your skull. If there’s something wrong with this joint, it’s called temporomandibular joint disorder (TMD).

TMD can make your jaw crack or pop. Other symptoms include:

  • jaw stiffness
  • locking of your jaw
  • limited jaw movement
  • pain in your jaw, face, or neck

TMD often happens without a specific cause. Occasionally, clenching your teeth due to emotional stress can play a role.

Arthritis

Arthritis occurs when your joints become damaged and inflamed. If it affects your TMJ, it can cause TMD and jaw cracking.

All types of arthritis can lead to TMD. Most cases are due to osteoarthritis, but it can also be caused by rheumatoid arthritis.

Arthritis also causes symptoms in other parts of your body, including:

  • joint pain and stiffness
  • swelling
  • redness
  • poor range of motion

Jaw dislocation or other injury

Facial injuries can dislocate or break your jaw. A dislocation happens when your jawbone moves out of place, while a broken jaw happens when your jawbone breaks.

Common causes of facial injury include:

  • physical trauma to the face
  • vehicle accident
  • sports injuries
  • industrial accidents
  • dental or medical procedures

A dislocated or broken jaw can lead to TMD symptoms, including jaw pain and cracking.

Other symptoms of dislocation include:

  • facial pain
  • crooked bite
  • difficulty talking
  • difficulty closing your mouth
  • jaw locking

If your jaw is broken, you’ll likely have:

  • facial pain
  • bruising, swelling, or bleeding
  • difficulty chewing
  • jaw stiffness
  • damaged teeth
  • ear pain
  • a lump in your cheek or jaw
  • facial numbness

Myofascial pain syndrome

Myofascial pain syndrome (MPS) causes pain in your muscles and fascia. Fascia is the sheet of connective tissue that covers every muscle.

MPS can affect any muscle, including those in your jaw, neck, and shoulder. It’s the most common cause of TMJ discomfort.

You may have jaw cracking and popping, along with:

  • throbbing jaw pain
  • painful muscle knots (trigger points)
  • jaw muscle tenderness
  • poor range of motion in your jaw
  • headaches
  • difficulty sleeping

Obstructive sleep apnea

If your breathing briefly and repeatedly stops during sleep, it’s called obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). This happens when the airways in your throat are too narrow.

OSA increases your chances of developing TMD. The connection is unclear, but it’s thought that the resistance in your airways triggers a stress response. This may cause your jaw muscles to clench together.

Other symptoms include:

  • snoring
  • daytime tiredness
  • dry mouth
  • shift in moods
  • morning headaches

Malocclusion of the teeth

Malocclusion of the teeth occurs when your upper and lower jaws are misaligned. It causes your upper and lower teeth to line up incorrectly.

There are several types of malocclusions, including:

  • overbite
  • underbite
  • open bite
  • cross bite
  • crowded teeth

The primary symptom is teeth misalignment, but you can also experience TMD and jaw noises.

Other symptoms include:

  • difficulty chewing or biting
  • mouth breathing
  • changes in facial appearance
  • speech issues

Infection

Jaw cracking and pain might indicate an infection in your:

Depending on the infection, you may also have:

  • an abnormal taste in your mouth
  • difficulty opening your mouth
  • dry mouth
  • swelling
  • fever
  • open ulcer

Jaw infections are often mistaken for TMD. If your doctor’s treatment for TMD fails to work, be sure to let them know.

Tumor

If a tumor develops in the oral cavity, it can lead to oral cancer. This may cause symptoms like:

  • mouth sore that won’t heal
  • persistent mouth pain
  • painless swelling in your neck or face
  • difficulty swallowing
  • difficulty hearing
  • persistent earache
  • voice changes
  • unexplained weight loss

The tumor can also affect how your jawbone moves, causing jaw noises like cracking or popping.

If you have jaw cracking while eating, you might have:

  • TMD
  • arthritis
  • malocclusion
  • injury
  • infection
  • tumor

Jaw cracking when you yawn might indicate:

  • TMD
  • injury
  • arthritis
  • malocclusion
  • OSA
  • MPS
  • infection

Potential causes of jaw cracking plus ear pain include:

  • broken jawbone
  • tumor

Jaw cracking usually isn’t serious. It typically goes away in 2 or 3 weeks. However, you should see a doctor if you have:

  • worsening jaw noises
  • persistent pain
  • lump in your jaw area
  • difficulty eating
  • difficulty breathing
  • speech issues
  • fever
MEDICAL EMERGENCY

If you were recently injured, go to the nearest emergency room. You’ll need immediate medical attention.

To stop jaw cracking, you’ll need to treat the underlying cause.

Home remedies

The following home remedies can be used alone or with medical treatment:

  • Over-the-counter (OTC) pain medication. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like naproxen sodium or ibuprofen may ease jaw discomfort.
  • Jaw stretches or massages. Stretching or massaging your jaw can help reduce tension. A doctor or physical therapist can show you jaw exercises.
  • Avoiding overextension. Activities like chewing gum and singing loudly can stress your jaw. Try your best to avoid them.
  • Avoiding hard foods. Eating crunchy, hard foods can worsen your symptoms. Choose softer foods, like mashed potatoes or yogurt.
  • Heat or ice pack. Hot or cold therapy may relieve inflammation and TMD symptoms. Wrap the pack in a clean towel to protect your skin and apply it for 10 minutes.
  • Stress management. Stress can trigger TMD, so it’s important to practice relaxation techniques. Common methods include yoga, meditation, and regular exercise.

Medical treatment

If your jaw cracking is due to a more serious condition, you may need medical treatment. This might include:

  • Prescription medication. A doctor may suggest prescription relievers if OTC drugs don’t help.
  • Mouthpieces. Oral splints can reposition your jaw and reduce TMD. Mouth guards can reduce teeth grinding and related discomfort.
  • Injections. Corticosteroid or Botox injections may alleviate TMD pain.
  • Ultrasound. If you have MPS in your jaw, an ultrasound can provide relief by increasing blood circulation.
  • Arthrocentesis. This procedure removes debris and inflammation byproducts from your TMJ.
  • CPAP. If you have OSA, you’ll need nasal continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) to breathe properly during sleep.
  • Corrective dental work. Dental work may be necessary if your upper and lower jaws are misaligned.
  • Corrective surgery. In more serious cases, you may need surgery to correct jaw deformities.

Cracking your jaw isn’t necessarily harmful. It can happen if you open your mouth wide, like during a big yawn. This is expected and normal.

However, take note if your jaw cracks when you talk or chew. It may indicate a more serious issue, especially if you also have pain.

Try eating softer foods to decrease your jaw activity. If your symptoms persist, see a doctor.

If you have jaw cracking, pay attention to your other symptoms. This can help you determine what might be causing the sound. Be sure to visit a doctor if you have persistent pain, difficulty eating or breathing, or if the jaw cracking gets worse.

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