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4 Common Causes of Jaw Pain in Athletes

Don’t let jaw pain or tightness affect your running—here’s what you can do.

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Jaw pain may not be the most common complaint among runners, but it’s certainly not a symptom to be ignored. According to the American Dental Association, it affects 15 percent of Americans and can feel like a pain around the ear, tenderness in the jaw, pain when biting or chewing, or manifest into headaches.

A number of factors can cause this pain and discomfort, so it’s important to get a medical diagnosis, says Michelle Finnegan, D.P.T., O.C.S., a physical therapist in Bethesda, Maryland, who specializes in treating patients with head, neck, and jaw pain. Following are four causes of jaw pain during exercise and how to address them.

What Causes Jaw Pain?

1. Forward-Head Posture

When combined with the impact forces of running, forward-head posture can indirectly contribute to jaw pain, says Finnegan. “Imagine your neck is a stick and your head is a bowling ball. If the stick tips forward, that 10-pound ball is going to feel a lot heavier,” she says.  When your head is forward, your neck muscles are subject to increased tension. Tight neck muscles can cause referred pain to the jaw. This kind of tension and jaw pain while running can cause headaches, which can also interfere with your training and snowball into more tension.

If you have forward-head posture, start by making lifestyle changes such as minimizing time spent looking down at your smartphone and adjusting your computer screen at work if necessary. Exercises can also strengthen the neck muscles that keep your head and neck in good alignment.

Photo: Getty Images

Alignment Check

Exercises that benefit your core, such as planks and quadruped exercises, can be good for your jaw, too. By maintaining good alignment all the way to the top of your head, you strengthen the neck muscles that keep your head stacked over your shoulders, says Finnegan. Follow these cues to make sure your head and neck are in good alignment.

  • Don’t look directly in front of you.
  • Don’t let your head hang toward the ground.
  • Slightly tuck your chin while keeping your head and neck in the same plane as your body.
  • Keep a balanced forward/backward arm motion, while minimizing side-to-side swinging. Practice with this arm swing drill.
  • Keep a neutral upper back and shoulder posture that’s not too rounded over or too leaned back.

2. Jaw Clenching

You may have been told in a yoga class to “soften your jaw,” and not realized you were even tensing it. Habitually clenching or tensing the jaw is a common cause of jaw pain, as it can contribute to the development of trigger points, especially in the masseter and temporalis muscles, says Finnegan.

It’s important to understand what’s causing you to clench in the first place, she says. Because most runners breathe with an open mouth, a clenching habit is less likely to be linked to running. But if you’ve already developed trigger points in your jaw, it’s possible to experience jaw pain while on a run.

If your clenching is due to stress, start by addressing what is causing the stress. Try to pay attention when it’s happening and find what works in the moment to release it like taking deep breaths, stretching it out, or taking a break from what you are doing.

3. TMJ Disorders

The temporomandibular joint (TMJ) connects your jawbone to your skull on each side of your jaw. TMJ disorders can cause pain in the jaw and the muscles around it—including difficulty or pain while chewing, pain in and around your ear, facial pain and difficulty opening and closing your mouth. According to the Mayo Clinic, it’s common for people with TMJ disorders to also have bruxism, which is clenching or grinding their teeth. (On the flip side, many people who clench or grind their teeth never develop TMJ disorders.)

Determining the exact cause of a TMJ disorder is important for prescribing treatment, Finnegan says. “A conservative approach should always be taken first. Frequently, by addressing impairments in the neck and jaw, symptoms will improve. This should be done prior to procedures such as shaving down teeth, having surgery or being fitted for an appliance. If a patient is being fitted for an appliance, it is important for the dentist and physical therapist to work together since physical therapy treatment to the jaw can influence the patient’s bite, requiring further adjustment of the appliance,” Finnegan says. “If the cause is musculoskeletal, a physical therapist [look for one who specializes in jaw disorders] can screen for whole-body contributing factors and provide you with appropriate exercises.”

4. Cardiac Problems

Most people associate signs and symptoms of a heart attack with chest and arm pain; however, jaw pain can be another sign associated with a heart attack. Typically the pain comes on with physical activity but goes away with rest. If you suspect cardiac involvement, see your physician before continuing to exercise.

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