While cracking and popping finger joints can be pretty satisfying, the same thing cannot be said when you hear clicking and crunching sounds from your jaw. When you crack your joints, the pop you hear is nitrogen bubbles bursting into the synovial fluid. It temporarily releases pain and tension, making it addictive for some people. However, a jaw-crunching sound often comes with discomfort and pain. Why does this happen? More importantly, what can you do about it?
While clicking and popping the jaw is not usually a cause for alarm (as it can happen when you open your mouth too wide, like when you yawn), it can be your body telling you something is wrong.
Read on to learn more about the possible causes of that crunching sound in your jaw.
Understanding the cause of the jaw clicking and crunching sound
There are a few potential causes of jaw clicking and popping, and they range in severity and type.
Temporomandibular joint disorder
The lower jaw is attached to the skull by the temporomandibular joints on each side. It consists of the mandible (lower jaw) and the temporal bone (side and base of the skull). Along with the facial muscles, these joints rotate and move in many directions, allowing you to open your mouth to chew your food side-to-side, speak, laugh, yawn, etc.
Underlying medical conditions like bruxism (jaw clenching and teeth grinding), arthritis, injury or trauma to the face, and even stress can cause problems to these joints. However, in most cases, it is caused by a temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJD, also referred to as TMD).
TMD can be caused by various things, from chewing too much gum, biting your fingernails or hard objects like pencils, chewing on ice, clenching the jaw too much and too often, thrusting the jaw outwards, etc. These bad habits can cause unnecessary wear to the temporomandibular joint, which results in the jaw crunching sound when moving the jaw in certain directions.
That clicking and popping noise is a tell-tale symptom of TMD. Other symptoms of TMD include:
- Limited range of motion of the jaw
- Jaw stiffness
- Locking of the jaw
- Pain in the jaw area, side of the face, neck, and even headaches
TMD can happen without a specific cause, and emotional stress can also play a role.
Arthritis happens when the jaw joint is too damaged, which causes inflammation. All types of arthritis can result in TMD, the most common type is osteoarthritis (smooth cartilage in the joint surface wears out). Rheumatoid arthritis (an autoimmune disease that attacks the body instead of intruders) can also lead to pain and clicking sounds of the jaw.
Common symptoms of arthritis in other body parts are:
- Pain and stiffness of the joint
- Poor range of motion
Trauma that leads to injury (jaw dislocation)
Injuries to the face and head can cause the jaw joint to break or dislocate. A dislocation happens when the jaw joint moves out of its place, while a broken jaw refers to the cracking of the jawbone.
Sports injuries, vehicular accidents, physical trauma to the face, industrial accidents, or dental or medical procedures are the common causes of facial injury.
Dislocation or broken jaw can also lead to the development of the TMD symptoms, such as pain and jaw crunching sound. Common symptoms of dislocation include:
- Crooked bite
- Facial pain
- Difficulty closing the mouth
- Difficulty talking or chewing
- Jaw locking
- Symptoms of a broken jaw include:
- Facial pain
- Facial numbness
- Ear pain
- Jaw stiffness
- Difficulty chewing
- Lump near the ear or jaw
- Damaged teeth
- Bruising, swelling, or bleeding
Myofascial pain syndrome
Myofascial pain syndrome (MPS) is a chronic condition that affects the fascia (connective tissues covering the muscles). The syndrome refers to the inflammation and pain in the body’s soft tissues, either in a single or group of muscles. The pain and inflammation can include the neck, shoulder, and jaw, which are common causes of TMJ discomfort.
MPS occurs because of an injury or excessive strain to the muscle in a particular muscle group, tendon, or ligament. It is caused by repetitive motion, injury to the muscle fibers, or lack of activity (which typically happens in broken arms in a sling).
The clicking and popping sound caused by MPS is accompanied with:
- Painful muscle knots (trigger points)
- Poor range motion of the jaw
- Throbbing jaw pain and jaw muscle tenderness
- Difficulty sleeping
Obstructive Sleep Apnea
If your breathing is interrupted during sleep by chronic snoring (or breathing that repeatedly stops during sleep), then there is a good chance you can develop pain and clicking sounds in your jaw.
Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) occurs when the airways are blocked. OSA happens when the muscles at the far side of the throat are overly relaxed, causing it to collapse and block the air passage. Obstructive sleep apnea is a common sleep disorder characterized by snoring, as the air in the airway vibrates, causing a loud sound known as snoring.
While the connection is unclear, OSA increases the risk of developing TMD. Experts believe that blocking air in the airways triggers a stress response in the body, causing someone to clench their jaws together during sleep.
Other symptoms of OSA include:
- Loud snoring due to interruption in breathing
- Morning headaches
- Dry mouth
- Daytime tiredness
- Difficulty concentrating and remembering
- Shift in moods
Excess weight, old age, narrowed airways (affecting people with thicker neck muscles or enlarged tonsils or adenoids), chronic nasal congestion, family history of sleep apnea, and asthma are just some risk factors for developing OSA. Moreover, smokers and people with diabetes and hypertension are likely to suffer from chronic snoring.
Incorrect bite alignment (misaligned upper and lower jaws) and malocclusions can cause unnecessary wear and tear and detrimental movement for the jaw joint. This results in what is known as TMD.
Symptoms for TMD-caused malocclusions include:
- Speech problems
- Changes in facial appearance
- Difficulty biting and chewing
- Mouth breathing (as opposed to through the nose)
When to see a doctor about your jaw crunching sound?
Jaw clocking and popping is not a serious issue. It typically goes away in 2-3 weeks. You need to have it checked out if the jaw crunching sound worsens or if you have a fever, chronic and persistent pain, and difficulty breathing.
Ellie Savoy, international best-selling author and holistic health coach, said: “Listen to your body; it is always communicating with you.” If you exhibit jaw clicking and crunching symptoms, pay attention. Use the information provided here to determine if it’s serious or not.
If you have doubts, see your doctor as soon as possible. They can help recommend the best treatment to address the pain and any other symptoms.