Why Does My Jaw Hurt Weeks After Dental Work?

Have you ever wondered why your jaw was so sore after a major dental procedure such as a root canal or wisdom tooth removal? Learn why and what you can do to relieve your TMJ pain.

Key takeaways:
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    Some mild to moderate jaw pain is normal after any dental procedure.
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    Normal causes of sore jaws/TMJ during or after visiting the dentist.
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    Your dentist can use a soft mouth prop during your treatment to reduce post-operative jaw pain.
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    Anti-inflammatory medication and cold compresses work well for relieving temporary jaw pain after dental work.
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    What to do if your jaw pain does not improve.

What causes jaw pain during a dental appointment?

Not everyone experiences jaw pain after dental treatment. However, longer and more complex visits — where your mouth is open for longer periods — may lead to discomfort in jaw joints (TMJ.) Especially if your dentist is working on a tooth further back in your mouth, requiring your mouth to be open wider than normal.

For people with existing TMJ disorder (TMD) or limited range of motion, this can be especially troublesome, as it may cause flare-ups in your joint and surrounding muscles. Most people with clinical TMD will have visible signs of joint irregularities on their dental X-rays. Dentists should be aware of this issue ahead of a procedure.

Although not related to your jaw per se, some patients may also experience similar pain that mimics TMJ discomfort due to the local anesthetic. Because dentists inject numbing medications into the soft tissues at the back of the mouth, it’s fairly common to experience soreness the day or two after the appointment at the injection site. Depending on how close the injection site is to the back of your mouth, it may make your jaw sore afterward. Think of it as a temporary bruise or sore arm after getting a vaccine.

Oral surgery patients, such as those who are having their wisdom teeth removed, may find that soreness and swelling last for as long as 10-14 days after their procedure. It is fairly common to see inflammation on one or both sides of the face and experience limited opening abilities until the surgical sites fully heal.

How your dentist can prevent jaw pain during your procedure?

Most dentists use what’s called a “bite block” during your appointment. This small, rubbery prop helps provide a cushion between your upper and lower jaw. It essentially does the work of holding your mouth open for you so that you don’t have to engage your muscles. The key is to allow you to relax while your teeth rest on the prop.

Depending on the size of your mouth, your dentist can choose various sizes bite blocks to find one that’s most comfortable.

If the procedure is shorter, your dentist may not need to use a bite block at all. However, if you find that holding your mouth open makes your jaw sore, ask your dentist if a bite block is available.

Home remedies for jaw discomfort after dental treatment

What can you do to help relieve TMJ discomfort after a long dental appointment? Most dentists recommend:

Taking an over-the-counter pain reliever

Specifically, an anti-inflammatory such as ibuprofen (Motrin) helps to reduce discomfort. These non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) work well for inflammation and swelling, the most common cause of tooth or jaw pain. Be sure to take the medication as directed.

Resting your jaw

Try to eat softer foods on the days immediately after your dental appointment. Avoid firm or chewy textures, which may re-aggravate your jaw discomfort. Additionally, don’t chew gum, as overworking your TMJ can cause flare-ups.

Alternate a warm and cold compress on your face

Some dental professionals recommend a warm compress on for 20 minutes, off for 20 minutes, then a cold compress on for 20 minutes, and off for 20 minutes, repeating as needed. Others may only suggest using the cold compress.

If jaw pain doesn’t go away

Most people will see their jaw or TMJ discomfort gradually improve in the days after their dental procedure. However, if symptoms persist for more than two weeks, it’s important to see your dentist or oral surgeon for a consultation.

Your dentist may prescribe a muscle relaxer to help jump-start your recovery from a sore jaw. However, in extremely rare situations, the joint could become dislocated, or the disc inside your jaw may not be positioned properly, causing joint discomfort. While these scenarios are extremely rare, your dentist or a dental specialist may need to adjust your joint manually or prescribe physical therapy to address the discomfort.

Lingering jaw pain is not normal. Be sure to call your dentist if symptoms don’t improve or worsen.

Take measures before your procedure to help reduce jaw pain afterward

If you have a longer dental appointment planned, there are certain steps you can take leading up to the visit to reduce your chances of joint pain. Such as:

  • Avoid hard, crunchy, or sticky foods (including chewing gum) the week before and after your appointment.
  • Wearing a bite splint or nightguard if you are prone to clenching and grinding your teeth.
  • Reducing caffeine intake, nicotine, and external stressors, when possible.

Don’t let jaw pain prevent you from getting the treatment you need

People prone to jaw pain should communicate this to their dentist while planning their upcoming treatment. That way, the dentist can make special accommodations to limit the risk of jaw or TMJ pain. However, avoiding the dentist altogether could lead to more complex, expensive, and lengthier treatments. The best solution is to treat issues while they’re still minor and before they grow too painful.

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