Jaw Pain In Children: Causes, Symptoms And Treatment

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Children might find jaw pain uncomfortable since it does not allow them to eat or speak comfortably. While jaw pain could happen due to various reasons, one of the most common reasons is problems in the temporomandibular joint or TMJ. Correct diagnosis can help understand the cause and treat jaw pain accordingly.

In this MomJunction post, we tell you about the possible causes of jaw pain in children, treatment options, and prevention.

Possible Causes Of Jaw Pain In Children

The common reasons for jaw pain in children include injuries and medical conditions.

  1. Temporomandibular joint dysfunction: TMJ connects the lower jaw to the skull. The dysfunction can happen because of overexertion, anxiety, stress, clenching, or grinding of teeth, or due to an injury (1).
  1. Headache or cluster headaches: Although rare in children, cluster headaches could be one of the reasons for jaw pain. This recurring pain may start at one part of the head and extend to the nose, cheek, jaw, and back (2).
  1. Infections: Infections of the ear, teeth, or jaw area may cause pain in the jaw. For instance, osteomyelitis is a bacterial infection that may result in jaw pain in children (3).
  1. Dental problems: Certain dental infections and problems such as abscessed tooth can result in swelling and pain in the jaw (4).
  1. Bruxism (teeth grinding): Some children may clench their jaws or grind their teeth often. It could cause pain or stiffness in the TMJ or the surrounding muscles, thus leading to jaw pain (5).
  1. Chest pain: In some cases, jaw pain could have its origin in chest pain. The pain could radiate from the chest to the shoulder, neck, and jaw (6).
  1. Broken jaw: Injuries could cause a fracture or dislocation of the lower jaw, thus causing swelling and pain (7).
  1. Joint pain: If the child has joint problems, such as juvenile arthritis, then the pain could occur in various joints of the body, including the jaw (8).
  1. Sinusitis: A condition called maxillary sinusitis, which affects sinuses behind the cheeks, may cause pain in the upper jaw (9).
  1. Trigeminal neuralgia: This condition causes chronic pain and may occur in children too. The child could experience sudden and extreme pain in the face, including the jaw (10).
  1. Malocclusion of teeth: Malocclusion means a misalignment, which causes teeth to become crowded or crooked. In malocclusion, the teeth from the upper and lower jaws may not meet when the mouth is closed. This condition in children may cause jaw joint problems, teeth grinding, and tooth decay, thereby causing jaw pain (11).

Jaw pain could also be accompanied by other symptoms, based on which the treatment is suggested.

Signs And Symptoms Of Jaw Pain In Children

Children, especially the older ones, can complain to a parent about jaw pain. However, if the pain is sporadic, it may be less noticeable to the child. In such situations, the following symptoms may indicate that the child has jaw pain (12) (1).

  • Difficulty in opening and closing mouth
  • Headaches and ear pain
  • Trouble in biting and chewing
  • Clicking, grating, and popping sound from the jaw
  • Pain near the ear and in facial muscles when yawning or chewing or talking
  • Swelling, pain, and fatigue of the jaw

When To See A Doctor?

The symptoms of jaw pain could also be associated with other problems. If you are not sure if it is a jaw problem, then consult a doctor for further diagnosis.

Diagnosis Of Jaw Pain

Based on the signs and symptoms, the doctor may follow a series of diagnostic measures (13).

  • A physical examination of the jaw, mouth, and neck bones.
  • The doctor may want to know the history of the pain and other prevailing medical conditions.
  • X-ray, MRI, or other radiology procedures may be considered if other steps yield no results.

The underlying cause of jaw pain will determine the treatment procedure.

Treatments For Jaw Pain In Children

The treatment of jaw pain could vary depending on the severity of the condition. The following are the treatment options available for jaw pain in children.

  1. Pain management: If the pain is mild or the cause of the pain can cure over a period, then the doctor may suggest pain management at home. Heat packs may be used to relax the pain, but make sure you are covering it with a cloth so that the child’s skin is not burnt. An ice pack wrapped in a towel or bag can also be applied on the jaw to reduce or treat the pain.
  1. Medications: In some cases, doctors may prescribe medicines such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen to relax muscles or treat inflammation. Severe cases may require administering muscle relaxant medicines to ease jaw pain (14).
  1. Physical therapy: Gentle massage, warm or cold compresses, and jaw stretching exercises may help relieve jaw pain (1).
  1. Splint: Occlusal splint is a soft acrylic device that wedges between the upper and lower sets of teeth within the mouth. The splint acts as a cushion and prevents the grinding of the teeth. It also helps provide stability to TMJ, thus easing jaw pain (15).
  1. Injections: Children with arthritis may require therapeutic joint injections. Steroidal compounds may be injected into the jaw joint to reduce the pain (16).
  1. Surgery: If the jaw is dislocated or injured, then surgery may be necessary to correct it. Surgical options include arthrocentesis, orthognathic surgery, open joint surgery, arthroscopy, and joint replacement (17).

Ways To Prevent Jaw Pain In Children

Jaw pain cannot be entirely prevented. However, some measures may be taken to avoid complications and prevent the pain from getting worse (18).

  • Avoid eating chewy and hard foods as it could strain the jaw muscles
  • Soft foods may be eaten, and smaller bites help
  • Keep the jaw at rest as much as possible
  • You may take your child to the dentist in the case of clenching or grinding teeth
  • Regularly massage cheeks, temples, and jaw
  • Regular movements and stretching may relax the joints

What Happens If TMJ Dysfunction Is Not Treated?

Jaw pain due to TMJ disorders is not a dangerous problem, but if the condition is not treated, a child’s quality of life may be affected. Untreated jaw pain may lead to the following problems  (19) (20).

  • Inflammation and joint damage
  • Inner ear and dental issues
  • Locked jaw
  • Eating disorders
  • Headaches
  • Pain in shoulder, back, and neck

Although jaw pain in children is not a severe condition, the signs and symptoms should not be overlooked. It is better to diagnose the cause of the pain and treat it as soon as possible so that the child doesn’t have to face a problem.  Also, teach your child about the preventive tips, so the risk of developing jaw pain is minimized.

Do you have any tips for jaw pain in children? Do share them in the comment section below.

References:

1. Temporomandibular Joint Dysfunction (TMJ) Symptoms & Causes; Boston Children’s Hospital
2. Cluster Headaches; UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital
3. C. Berglund, K. Ekstromer, and J. Abtahi; Primary Chronic Osteomyelitis of the Jaws in Children: An Update on Pathophysiology, Radiological Findings, Treatment Strategies, and Prospective Analysis of Two Cases; Case Reports in Dentistry (2015)
4. Dental Abscess with Facial Cellulitis; fairview.org
5. Teeth grinding (bruxism); nhs.uk
6. S. R. V. Reddy and H. R. Singh; Chest Pain in Children and Adolescents; Pediatrics in Review (2010)
7. Facial Injuries; British Columbia Health Link
8. S. Bernstein; Juvenile Arthritis: Early Signs and Symptoms; Arthritis Foundation
9. Acute Sinusitis; Harvard Health Publishing
10. Trigeminal Neuralgia; Child Neurology Foundation
11.Malocclusion in Children; University of Rochester Medical Center
12. TMJ Disorders; Brenner Children’s Wake Forest Baptist Health
13. R. L. Gauer and M. J. Semidey; Diagnosis and Treatment of Temporomandibular Disorders; American Family Physician (2015)
14. TMJ Disorders; Mount Sinai
15. Acquired Temporomandibular Disorders in Infants, Children, and Adolescents; The Reference Manual Of Pediatric Dentistry (2019)
16. Therapeutic Joint Disorders; Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia
17. Treatment for Temporomandibular Joint Disorders (TMD) in Children; Boston Children’s Hospital
18. Preventing and Treating TMJ in Older Adults; Tooth Wisdom
19. Dangers of Untreated TMJ; Perfect White Smile
20. The Risks of UntreatedTMJ Disorder; TMJ Therapy & Sleep Center of Colorado

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