Temporomandibular joint disorder, more commonly called TMJ, has a host of unpleasant symptoms concerning the jaw, from jaw pain to popping or clicking sounds when the mouth opens and closes. While significantly less common than jaw pain, one symptoms that TMJ patients can experience is a slipped articular disc. When this disc moves out of place, the jaw can lock in position, causing a lot of pain.
While this symptom is relatively uncommon, it can also be scary for the person experiencing it, particularly if they don’t know what’s happening or how to handle it.
What Is a Jaw Lock?
Inside the jaw joint, there is a piece of cartilage known as the articular disk. This disk sits between the two pieces of the joint and enables it to move smoothly. The disc is held in place by ligaments, but if those ligaments become torn, it’s possible for the disc to slip out of place.
There isn’t necessarily any pain when the articular disc is displaced. In fact, the popping or clicking sensation that often comes with TMJ is due to that disc slipping out of place and then being pulled back into place by the remaining ligaments. Sometimes, people even experience a painless, temporary “catch,” in which their jaw becomes stuck for a moment, but then releases.
However, the disc doesn’t always get pulled back into place. When this happens, the jaw can become stuck in either an open or closed position. When someone can’t open their mouth wide enough to fit two fingers into their mouth, this is called a closed lock. When the mouth is held open and can’t be fully closed, this is called an open lock.
What Can Be Done?
If you find yourself with a locked jaw, there are a few things you can do at home to try and get it to release.
First, do your best to relax. Pain and fear can create additional tension in the jaw. It may help to apply heat to both sides of the jaw to relax the muscles. With the jaw as relaxed as possible, put your palms on each side of your jaw and gently wiggle the jaw from side to side and back and forth. Sometimes the disc will pop back into place if the joint is moved into the right position for it. If this doesn’t work, don’t try to simply force your jaw to move, since this can cause further damage to the joint or other injuries. Seek professional care.
Whether you manage to get your jaw unlocked or not, the next step is to call your dentist. Even if you were able to get your jaw moving again, the jaw lock is an indicator of extreme damage to your articular disc. To avoid further damage and future locking, it’s important to get treatment from an experienced TMJ dentist.
Historically, it was common for surgery to be the first response to a locking jaw. Fortunately, studies have since indicated that a combination of anti-inflammatory agents, physical therapy, and dental splints can effectively reduce symptoms.