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Without your jaw joint, you wouldn’t be able to speak or chew. Yawning would be impossible, and you could forget the foods most important to your diet. Unfortunately, even a little pain in an otherwise healthy mandible can make these things difficult.

The jaw joint, or temporomandibular joint (TMJ), isn’t just vital to basic human behavior; it’s one of the more complicated joints in the body, according to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research. When something goes wrong, people experience irritation from certain movements, usually known as a TMJ disorder. There are many causes of jaw joint pain, though, and several ways to treat it.

What’s Behind the Pain?

The specific cause of your jaw joint problem isn’t always identifiable, according to Mayo Clinic, but two of the most common reasons for pain are trauma to the area and arthritis. If you’re hit in the jaw, for example, this blow can cause the disc joint to move out of position. Habits such as grinding your teeth or excessive gum chewing can lead to jaw pain over time, too.

Jaw Joint Pain Relief

Relief through Avoidance

A conservative approach to pain relief is the first thing doctors and dentists recommend. According to the American Academy of Otolaryngology, home treatments and self remedies are often all that are needed, as long as the pain is caught and treated early on.

At-home treatments start with limitations: Keep away from overly chewy or difficult-to-eat foods. Products that crunch, are sticky or require a lot of chewing – like tough cuts of meat – can overwork your jaw, making the pain worse. Although you don’t have to limit yourself to pudding or yogurt, you do want to avoid particularly challenging foods. Cutting your meals into smaller than bite-sized pieces can also help.

Relief through Relaxation

You can relieve jaw joint pain in a similar way by relaxing the jaw. Pay attention to how your jaw feels when it’s at rest. If you notice yourself holding your jaw tensely, or clenching your teeth subconsciously, focus on basic mouth movement and keeping it in a soft, relaxed position. Try to limit the size of your yawn, which can open the jaw too wide and overextend the muscle.

Like other injuries, heat and cold treatments can go a long way to easing the pain. Apply an ice pack to reduce swelling – or a warm, moist washcloth to prevent stiffness – to the side of your jaw every 30 minutes throughout the day, for as long as you feel discomfort.

When treating jaw pain at home, don’t forget to take care of the rest of your mouth. Brush your teeth gently, twice a day, using a fluoride toothpaste such as Colgate® Sparkling White. If it hurts to open your mouth to brush, do so slowly and take care not to open too wide when reaching the second molars.

Seeking Help

If at-home remedies don’t fully relieve your joint pain, you may want to work with either a doctor or dentist to supplement these efforts. A medical professional can prescribe a variety of medications to help reduce pain, from pain relievers to muscle relaxants that address joint pain due to clenching. A splint might also help to stabilize the joint, though some people find working with a physical therapist directly – and learning how to relax and stretch the jaw – treats the pain more thoroughly.

The good news? Jaw joint pain is usually a temporary condition. Although the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research estimates that TMJ issues affect about 10 million people each year, the majority of them end up finding relief with the most basic of treatments.