One of the most common symptoms of TMJ is facial pain, typically felt in the jaw muscles as a dull, throbbing ache, although it can be felt almost anywhere in the face and may have a different character.
But not all facial pain is related to TMJ. Here are some other causes of facial pain to consider.
Infections That Cause Facial Pain
Some common infections can cause facial pain. Sinus infections are the one that most people think about, but it’s only one of many different facial infections that can cause you significant pain. Dental infections — including cavities and abscessed teeth — are sometimes felt as facial pain, so it’s important to eliminate these before trying to track down facial pain.
The trigeminal nerve is the nerve that carries signals to and from most of the face, including pain signals. The trigeminal nerve is linked to migraines, and it’s blamed for this uncommon chronic pain condition in which the trigeminal nerve begins to spontaneously give off pain signals. Sometimes the source of pain can be tracked to pressure on the trigeminal nerve, which may be related to TMJ, although it can also be caused by blood vessels, muscles, and more.
Other times, trigeminal neuralgia might be caused by a traumatic injury that never properly heals, resulting in serious chronic pain.
Pain related to trigeminal neuralgia tends to be sharp, shocking pain that often occurs spontaneously. Although the individual instances of pain last just a few seconds to a few minutes, it may recur frequently for long attacks that may last for hours. Most often, the pain occurs on just one side of the face, but in rare cases, it occurs on both sides.
Giant Cell Arteritis (GCA)
Giant cell arteritis (GCA) occurs when the lining of your arteries in the head and face can begin to swell. This causes pain as the swelling arteries can press up against nerves in the face or head, and it can cause pain similar to migraines. The swelling can also block blood flow, which can lead to the loss of vision in the eye. Other symptoms may include fatigue, fever, and other flu-like symptoms.
GCA is treated with steroid injections to reduce swelling.
Salivary Gland Stones
Salivary gland stones cause pain associated with eating, but not necessarily with chewing. The pain most often occurs along the jaw at the bottom of the mouth.
Salivary gland stones are also called calculi, and the condition of having them is sometimes called sialolithiasis. They form because of the minerals in your saliva that are there to help your teeth remineralize after acid attack from bacteria or acidic foods. They cause pain because they’re blocking the flow of saliva from your saliva glands, causing the ducts to get full and distended. Some people report the pain is worse when eating acidic or sour foods.
Other symptoms related to salivary gland stones include dry mouth, fever, and swelling of the salivary glands. Sometimes you may be able to see or feel the stones in the ducts.
The stones can be removed to relieve symptoms, but they can recur.
Carotid Artery Dissection
Like GCA, carotid artery dissection can cause pain related to your arteries. But in carotid artery dissection, the swelling is caused because the inner layer of the carotid artery tears, allowing blood to flow out between the two layers, separating them.
This is a rare condition, unless you have a family history of it occurring. Carotid artery dissection can be related to trauma or it can occur spontaneously.
Other symptoms associated with carotid artery dissection include pain that stretches from the neck to the head, Horner syndrome (which includes constricted pupil, limpness of one part of the face, and the inability to sweat on one side of the face), and it may cause a stroke.
Rarely, facial tumors may be the cause of pain. Tumors of the jaw, sinus, skull base, and facial nerves can be linked to your pain.
Atypical Facial Pain
Atypical facial pain essentially means your facial pain doesn’t match the common causes of facial pain. It may be the diagnosis your doctor settles on when they can’t figure out the cause of your pain.
Is Your Doctor Unable to Treat Your Pain?
So what can you do if the treatments your doctor is trying aren’t relieving your symptoms? Maybe it’s time to consider talking to a neuromuscular dentist, who can determine whether TMJ is to blame for your facial pain and recommend an effective treatment to restore pain-free healthy function of your face and jaw.