Feeling Neck and Jaw Pain? Learn When to See a Doctor

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a woman suffers from neck and jaw pain

Have you ever woken up with a stiff, aching neck and a sore jaw? Or maybe you’ve noticed pain in these areas after a stressful day spent clenching your jaw or hunching over a computer? Don’t be surprised.

Neck pain is more common than most of us care to think, with a prevalence as high as 20.3% according to one study. On the other hand, an estimated 10 million Americans suffer from TMJ, which is one of the culprits behind both neck and jaw pain. 

It’s high time to get it fixed. But first, let’s familiarize ourselves with what we’re dealing with exactly and how to properly address this type of pain. 

What Could Cause Pain Under the Jaw and Neck?

Neck and jaw pain can arise from temporomandibular joint disorder, dental issues like abscessed tooth or gum disease, and infections like sinusitis, mumps, or swollen lymph nodes

Other causes can include trauma, arthritis, or even heart conditions. Stress and anxiety, leading to teeth grinding, can also result in pain in the area. 

Muscle Tension and Strain

One of the leading causes of jaw and neck soreness is increased muscle tension and strain in these areas. The constant strain of clenching the jaw throughout the day, improper posture like jutting the neck forward, and even habits like chewing gum can overwork the muscles and result in inflammation and pain. 

Things like stress, anxiety, and fatigue can also increase muscle tightness as the body subconsciously tenses up in response.


Trauma from injuries or accidents is another source of neck and jaw discomfort. Whiplash from a car accident, a blow to the face, or a bad fall where you whip your head back suddenly can all injure the delicate muscles and joints of the neck and jaw. 

This trauma leads to lingering soreness, inflammation, and decreased mobility.


Temporomandibular joint and muscle disorders (TMJ/TMD) refer to conditions affecting the hinge joint that connects the jawbone to the skull and the surrounding complex of muscles. 

What muscles are involved in the jaw and neck? The sternocleidomastoid and trapezius mainly, which extend down into the shoulder region. There are also the masseter and temporomandibular joints that play crucial roles in chewing and speaking. 

Can TMJ cause neck and shoulder pain?

Yes, TMJ can lead to inflammation in jaw muscles that connects to the neck and shoulders, causing referred pain in those areas. Inflammation from TMJ can spread along these interconnected muscle chains, causing referred pain in the neck and shoulders.

Can TMJ cause head and neck pain? 

When the joint and the muscles controlling jaw movement become impaired, it can lead to radiating pain in the jaw, neck, and sometimes head. TMJ disorders can involve arthritis, disc displacement, or dislocation of the jawbone.

Teeth Grinding/Clenching 

Grinding or clenching of the teeth, especially during sleep, can put tremendous strain on the jaw muscles and joints. This repetitive strain causes muscle spasms and inflammation that then radiate out as jaw pain and neck soreness. 

These involuntary jaw contractions are also known as bruxism.


Degenerative joint conditions like osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis can affect the bones in the neck vertebrae as well as the temporomandibular joint. 

As the protective cartilage wears down in the joints, the resulting bone-on-bone grinding causes severe pain and stiffness in the neck and jaw areas.

Nerve Pain 

The complex network of nerves spanning the neck and jaw area can become aggravated for various reasons, leading to radiating and sometimes debilitating pain signals. 

A compressed nerve root in the neck, trigeminal neuralgia, and neuropathy resulting from diabetes or injury are common examples.

Stress and Anxiety 

Mental strain and stress have a physical effect on the body, and the neck and jaw often bear the brunt of this tension. Prolonged periods of heightened stress and anxiety cause people to unconsciously clench their jaw or roll their shoulders up toward their ears. 

These sustained muscle contractions lead to pain and worsening discomfort over time. Finding ways to relax both mind and body are key.

Poor Posture

Slumping or hunching over desks and devices for prolonged periods puts strain on the neck muscles and vertebrae. Bending the neck forward for long stretches compresses nerves and leads to fatigue and pain. Poor posture also contributes to arthritis development over time.  

Now that you know about the diverse causes of neck and jaw discomfort, let’s go over how to recognize the most common signs and symptoms.

Dental Issues

Dental problems like abscessed teeth, gum disease, and sinus infections can all trigger pain in the jaw and neck areas.


Swollen lymph nodes, mumps, and sinus infections can cause inflammation and pain in the neck and jaw region.

Heart Conditions

Sometimes jaw pain, especially on the left side, can result from a heart attack or angina as advised by the American Heart Association. This is the body’s way of signaling heart distress.

What are the Symptoms of Neck and Jaw Pain?

Neck and jaw pain vary greatly, from mild achiness to severe debilitating pain. Here are some hallmark symptoms:

  • Sharp, stabbing pain or dull, throbbing aches in the jaw, neck, and upper back areas
  • Radiating pain from the jaw that travels down the neck and towards the ears
  • Jaw stiffness or soreness when chewing or opening the mouth widely
  • Headaches, migraines, and neck pain upon waking 
  • Reduced range of motion when turning or tilting the neck from side to side
  • Clicking, popping, or grinding noises in the jaw joint when opening and closing mouth
  • Tooth sensitivity or loose teeth not explained by dental issues 
  • Muscle tenderness and pain when pressure is applied to the jaw, neck, and shoulders 
  • Tingling or numbness that radiates from the neck down the arm (may indicate nerve compression)

If you experience any of these symptoms persistently, it’s important to seek medical advice to determine the underlying cause. Catching and addressing problems early can help avoid unnecessary suffering and escalation.

How Is Jaw and Neck Pain Diagnosed?

a doctor explains the x-ray result to the patient

To get to the root cause of neck and jaw discomfort, doctors use a combination of methods and tests. Here is an overview of the diagnostic process:

Diagnostic MethodDescription
Medical history reviewLooks at the patient’s health background and symptoms onset. Recent injuries, habits, chronic illnesses, and other key factors can point to likely causes.
Physical examinationInvolves palpating the neck, jaw, head, and shoulders to pinpoint areas of muscle spasms, inflammation, tightness, and restricted mobility. Also includes testing jaw movement and function.
ImagingUses X-rays, CT scans, and MRIs to reveal issues with jaw alignment, arthritis, bone spurs, nerve impingement, disc damage and more.
Dental evaluationA dentist can identify dental-related causes like misaligned bite, teeth grinding, gum disease, oral infections, etc.
BloodworkTests reveal markers of infection, autoimmune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, and vitamin deficiencies with the help of other examinations.
Nerve conduction studyMeasures how well nerves transmit electrical signals and can detect nerve compression or damage.

Once the underlying cause is identified through diagnostic testing, an appropriate treatment plan can be developed to resolve the neck and jaw discomfort.

What Are Effective Strategies to Treat Neck and Jaw Pain?

The good news is there are many options for relieving neck and jaw soreness, depending on the diagnosed cause. Here are some of the most effective treatments:

Relieve with Medications

  • Over-the-counter anti-inflammatories like ibuprofen or naproxen can alleviate muscle soreness and joint pain.
  • Prescription muscle relaxers relieve muscle tension and spasms.
  • Nerve pain medications like gabapentin help reduce radiating nerve pain.
  • Corticosteroid injections can temporarily relieve inflammation from arthritis.

Rehabilitate with Physical Therapy and Manual Therapy

Specific exercises and stretches strengthen neck and jaw muscles, improve flexibility and posture, and decrease tension. Physical therapy also utilizes TENS units, ultrasound, and deep tissue massage for pain relief. Manual therapy for TMJ is another proven option. 

Manage Stress

Relaxation techniques like deep breathing or meditation and yoga help ease the mental strain and tension that contributes to physical discomfort. Massage and acupuncture also release tension.

Stretch and Exercise the Jaw

Simple daily jaw stretches and exercises help increase mobility and counteract stiff, achy jaw muscles from clenching and TMJ. Stretching increases blood flow and relieves tension.

Apply Hot/Cold Therapy

Alternating hot compresses and cold packs on the neck and jaw provide pain relief by increasing circulation and reducing inflammation of sore muscles and joints.

Get Dental Treatments

Dentists can provide bite splints or night guards to prevent teeth grinding and help realign the jaws. They also correct overbites, underbites, and other improper bites (malocclusion) that put a strain on the temporomandibular joint.

Consider Surgery

For severe TMJ that fails to improve, surgery on the jaw joint may be recommended as a last resort. Surgery can involve reshaping the jawbones, replacing the joint disc, or removing scar tissue.

Make Lifestyle Changes

Making certain lifestyle adjustments can profoundly impact reducing instances of neck and jaw discomfort long-term. Tips include improving posture, reducing gum chewing, establishing a regular sleep schedule, eating soft foods, limiting caffeine, and reducing stress.

Now that you have a better understanding of the various treatment options available, let’s go over some proactive ways to help prevent neck and jaw pain from developing in the first place.

How Can I Prevent Neck and Jaw Pain?

Utilizing these proven prevention strategies can help ward off painful flare-ups and keep your neck and jaw feeling supple:

  • Maintain proper upright posture when sitting, standing, or walking to avoid neck strain. Refrain from slouching or jutting the neck forward.
  • Reduce or eliminate teeth clenching and grinding during the day or night by managing stress, anxiety, and dental issues. 
  • Perform gentle neck stretches and jaw exercises in the morning and evening to increase mobility and counteract stiffness. 
  • Learn techniques like mindfulness meditation to better cope with and reduce stress levels that manifest physically as muscle tension.
  • Get dental work like braces to correct overbites, underbites, and misaligned teeth that put excess strain on the jaw joint and muscles.
  • Adjust computer workstations so the monitor is at eye level and refrain from hunching over desks for prolonged periods.
  • Use proper form when exercising, lifting heavy objects, or performing repetitive motions to avoid neck muscle strains.
  • Avoid chewing gum excessively or opening the jaw wide for lengthy times when yawning or singing.
  • Apply warm compresses and massage muscles gently to increase blood flow to the neck and jaw areas.
  • Sleep on a supportive pillow that keeps the neck aligned and avoids kinking. Sleeping on the stomach or sides strains the neck.
  • Maintain optimal posture when talking on the phone by using a headset or tilting the chin down slightly rather than cradling the phone on an angled shoulder.
  • Control jaw thrusting or side-to-side motions during activities like public speaking or singing to reduce strain.
  • Consume foods that require less intense chewing to give the jaw muscles a rest. Don’t chew ice! Opt for softer foods like scrambled eggs, mashed potatoes, steamed vegetables, etc.
  • Stay hydrated since dehydration and mineral imbalance can cause muscle cramping and spasms that affect the neck and jaw.
  • Monitor pain levels and immediately stop activities that aggravate neck or jaw pain like heavy lifting or dental procedures. Give the aggravated areas rest.

Alleged treatments involving permanent changes to the jaw or teeth should be questioned as there is not enough supporting evidence to suggest that these treatments work.

By consistently implementing these preventive tips, you can keep nagging neck and jaw discomfort at bay and hopefully avoid it altogether.

Ready to Take Your First Steps to Relieve Neck and Jaw Pain?

a patient describes her neck and jaw pain symptoms to her doctor

Managing the discomfort starts with recognizing the symptoms and seeking an accurate diagnosis. Once the root issue is identified, there are many treatment options available for relief ranging from physical therapy and medication to dental work and lifestyle changes. 

Most importantly, proactively preventing flare-ups by reducing strain, managing stress, and improving posture can help minimize aches and greatly enhance your quality of life.

To explore specialized treatment options tailored to your unique needs and get matched with a top specialist, visit Kaly

Our advanced telehealth platform makes it easy to connect with experienced doctors and physical therapists who can help diagnose your specific neck and jaw pain causes and create a personalized treatment plan to finally find lasting relief!

Frequently Asked Questions

Why is the gland under my jaw sore?

It’s often due to the lymph node’s response to infection. Pain and tenderness often accompany swelling, along with other signs like a runny nose or fever. Sore glands under the jaw can also result from cysts, allergies, and medical conditions. 

Can a toothache cause neck pain?

Toothaches sometimes cause neck pain due to the interconnected nerves between the dental and cervical areas. Tooth abscesses may radiate pain up to the jaw, ear, and neck. Teeth grinding can overwork the jaw muscles and contribute to pain.