Jaw Pain in Adults With Arthritis

Different types of arthritis can affect any joint, including the temporomandibular joint.

By Linda Rath | Aug. 5, 2022

Jaw pain can result from many different causes, including degenerative or autoimmune joint disease. Osteoarthritis (OA), is the most common type of arthritis affecting the temporomandibular joint (TMJ) — the jaw — but rheumatoid arthritis (RA), psoriatic arthritis, juvenile arthritis (JA) and lupus are also associated with TMJ pain in adults. People who have arthritis in the jaw may also have the same type of arthritis in other joints. 

TMJ Basics

It’s not hard to understand why arthritis strikes the jaw. The TMJ is the most used and complex joint in your body — far more complicated than your hips, knees or even hands. You have two TMJs, one in front of each ear. They connect your lower jaw bones to the temporal bones at the side of your skull. The joints have both a hinge and a sliding movement, allowing you to open your mouth, talk, eat and kiss. Like other joints, they have soft tissue that absorbs shock.


Although popularly known as TMJ, jaw pain isn’t a single condition; it’s a group of more than 30 disorders called temporomandibular disorders or TMDs. The main symptoms include:
  • Pain in the joints and muscles in your jaw, which may feel like a toothache
  • Limited movement of your jaw, which can interfere with eating, laughing and swallowing
  • Neck and shoulder pain
  • Chronic headaches
  • Pain, pressure or ringing in your ears
  • Dizziness
You may have some of these symptoms all the time or they may come and go. Some people only notice them during flares. You may also notice an occasional grinding or clicking in your jaw. This can be a TMD symptom, but it usually isn’t anything to worry about and often goes away on its own. 

As many as 85% of people with a TMD have other health problems, including headaches, back pain and fibromyalgia. Like a TMD, these “invisible” conditions aren’t always taken seriously by friends and family or the medical community. 


Doctors once thought that TMDs were caused by misaligned teeth or a poorly positioned jaw.  It’s now known that poorly aligned teeth (malocclusion) rarely causes jaw pain. Instead, TMDs are thought to be complicated disorders in which physical, emotional, environmental and genetic factors play a role. For example, stress, trauma or chronic pain can cause someone to clench their jaw or grind their teeth, wearing down the cartilage in the jaw joints and setting the stage for arthritis. 

Researchers are also investigating the oral microbiome — the vast community of microbes that reside in your mouth, including bacteria, viruses and fungi. Most are critical for your health, but some can be harmful, like those that cause periodontal disease. Many studies have shown that an imbalance in these microbes greatly increases the chance of rheumatoid arthritis.  There’s also a likely connection between oral bacteria and TMDs.

Other causes of facial pain include congenital jaw defects; poor joint mechanics; physical trauma from a blow or car crash; menopause, when low estrogen levels can cause bone loss; and depression, anxiety and hypersensitivity to pain. Sometimes the causes are never found, or they may overlap.


Your dentist might be the first person you talk to about TMJ pain, but a rheumatologist should also be involved if you have arthritis in other joints. For an accurate diagnosis, your doctor will perform a thorough physical exam, take a complete medical history and possibly recommend imaging tests like X-rays or MRI to detect cartilage loss or damage to the tissue that cushions the joint. For many people, though, expensive tests aren’t necessary. 


Many TMDs don’t need treatment and often go away on their own or with simple home remedies. The vast majority of people don’t need invasive procedures. Some patients with arthritis may need surgery to remove loose bone fragments or to reshape their jaw. With most jaw surgeries, there’s no guarantee the problem won’t come back, however. More often, your doctor might recommend:
  • Physical therapy to strengthen the muscles around your jaw and improve your head and neck posture
  • A mouthguard at night to help prevent a clenched jaw
  • Counseling to help identify factors that might contribute to your pain, like tooth grinding and nail biting
The latest research shows that for people with OA, injections of corticosteroid, hyaluronic acid or platelet rich plasma (PRP) into the temporomandibular joints are of no benefit.  In one analysis, placebo actually out-performed corticosteroid shots. 

What You Can Do

One of the simplest and most effective treatments is to rest your jaw. Here’s how:
  • Eat soft foods like soups, oatmeal and lightly cooked vegetables and fish
  • Apply ice or moist heat to your jaw
  • Avoid exaggerated jaw movements like deep yawns and gum chewing
  • Try stress management and relaxation techniques