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Why is my jaw clicking and popping?

Updated: Sep 17, 2018

TMJ anatomy
anatomy of the TMJ

It's not uncommon for people to experience clicking, popping, or soreness in the jaw. Sometimes painful, sometimes more of a nuisance, but in either case it could be an early warning sign of bigger issues.

Small "clicks" likely indicate tension within the muscles surrounding the jaw (typically the internal and/or external pterygoids). Occasionally patients mistake this light click for popping within the ear canal. This can potentially lead to disc degeneration and pain within the TMJ.

Larger pops, especially if you notice your jaw literally popping in and out of joint, are indicative of the jaw bone getting unset off of the disc, and ligament damage to the guide wires that work to keep the jaw on track. This is typically caused by larger cranial-dental issues such as under development of the maxilla (bone at the roof of your mouth), loss of vertical in your back teeth, or major occlusion issues.

Over time the larger popping in/out of joint will stop or lessen, as the body creates a "pseudo disc" out of ligaments surrounding the joint (since the jaw bone is no longer seated on the real disc). At this stage someone may open crooked, with the jaw deflecting to one side or the other upon opening, but there isn't the popping in/out that you find in the situation previously described. This stage is usually less acute than the situation described above in terms of TMJ pain, though the resulting misalignment of the jaw can cause major issues with occlusion and bite (the way the teeth come together)

Jaw pain
TMJ pain

For smaller clicks, pterygoid release, cranial work, upper cervical work, and sacro-iliac stability are helpful tools to prevent any further issues from developing.

For the larger pops, though symptoms can be alleviated through cranial work, dural release, and sacro-iliac stability, fixing the problem often requires dental intervention. Some cases will self resolve, though as described above, there is often a change that has occurred in the bite that can be an issue in and of itself.

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