Lockjaw Explained: Understanding The Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment Options

It can be a distressing and even scary situation: you wake up and find out it’s painful to open or close your mouth too much. Some people might even find their jaws stuck in a certain position. What they might be experiencing is lockjaw, a condition that can have several causes and also be a symptom of a serious infection. In this blog, we’ll aim to provide an in-depth understanding of lockjaw causes, symptoms, and treatment options. By examining relevant research and medical literature, this comprehensive review will inform readers about the risk factors associated with lockjaw and explore various therapeutic approaches available. We want to help you or any loved one suffering from lockjaw get the appropriate and prompt knowledge to answer any questions about this condition before seeking medical care. But keep in mind that only a professional oral health expert can diagnose and treat the problem.

What is Lockjaw?

Lockjaw, medically referred to as trismus, is a distressing condition characterized by painful muscle contractions in the jaw and neck, leading to a limited range of motion and a “lock” sensation. Often mistaken as a symptom of tetanus infection, lockjaw can arise from various causes such as injury, periodontal infections, medication, or temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorders. Common symptoms of lockjaw include jaw stiffness and difficulty opening or closing the mouth, hence its name. In severe cases, these spasms can spread to other muscles in the body, leading to problems with breathing and swallowing. Prompt medical attention is crucial for managing lockjaw effectively. Treatment options for lockjaw typically involve several options, including massages, therapy, and even administering antitoxin medications to neutralize the toxins produced by Clostridium tetani if the lockjaw is the symptom of tetanus and providing supportive care to manage symptoms and prevent complications.

Causes of Lockjaw

The causes and risk factors for lockjaw are varied and range from temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder to bacterial infection and neurological disorders. The lockjaw symptoms will also help determine the cause. TMJ disorder refers to a condition that affects the joint connecting the jawbone to the skull and can potentially contribute to lockjaw symptoms, while tetanus, a bacterial infection, affects the nervous system and can cause muscle stiffness and spasms including in the jaw muscles leading to lockjaw. Dental issues such as tooth decay or abscesses can also result in facial pain and muscle tightness in the jaw region. Trauma or injury to the head or face may create tension in the muscles surrounding the jaw, leading to lockjaw symptoms. Let’s explore these and other causes a bit further.

Temporomandibular Joint (TMJ) Disorder

Temporomandibular Joint (TMJ) Disorder is a condition that affects the joint connecting the jawbone to the skull, leading to various symptoms and potential functional limitations. Individuals with temporomandibular joint disorder may experience pain or tenderness in the jaw joints, difficulty opening or closing their mouth fully, clicking or popping sounds when moving their jaw, and even episodes of jaw locking. The exact cause of TMJ disorder is often unclear, but it is believed to result from a combination of factors such as jaw muscle tension, misalignment of the jaw joints, bruxism, arthritis in the joint, or injury to the jaw. Treatment options for TMJ disorder can include self-care measures like applying heat or cold packs to alleviate pain and reduce inflammation, practicing stress management techniques to reduce muscle tension in the jaw muscles, and using oral splints or mouth guards to correct bite problems and stabilize the joint alignment. In severe cases, medical interventions such as medications (e.g., pain relievers) and physical therapy exercises for strengthening and stretching of the jaw muscles may be recommended. Surgical procedures are generally considered a last resort when non-surgical treatments fail.


Tetanus is a bacterial infection caused by the Clostridium tetani bacterium that affects the nervous system and leads to muscle stiffness and spasms. The infection used to be synonymous with “lockjaw” but that’s no longer true, as lockjaw from tetanus is now very rare. The main cause of tetanus is exposure to the bacterium through contaminated wounds, such as cuts or puncture injuries. The bacteria produce a toxin that affects nerve impulses, resulting in muscle contractions and spasms. Patients suffering from tetanus will also experience symptoms like high blood pressure and heart rate, along with fevers and extreme sweating. Prompt medical attention is crucial for treating tetanus. Treatment options include wound cleaning and debridement, administration of tetanus antitoxin and antibiotics, as well as supportive care such as pain management and physical therapy to alleviate symptoms and prevent complications. As mentioned, tetanus is now uncommon in the U.S. and no longer the main cause of lockjaw, as it was decades ago. There are now only about 30 cases of tetanus on average a year in the country, all of them in people who have never been vaccinated or haven’t kept up with their boosters. Vaccination against tetanus is essential for prevention and has been common and safe for many decades now.


Trauma to the jaw or surrounding areas can result in various complications and may require medical intervention. And two potential complications that can arise from trauma are both temporomandibular joint disorder (TMD) and lockjaw. Traumatic events such as direct blows to the jaw or accidents that cause sudden impact can disrupt the normal functioning of this joint, leading to symptoms such as difficulty opening or closing the mouth, clicking or popping sounds during jaw movement, facial pain, and headaches. Treatment for lockjaw caused by trauma typically involves a combination of medications for pain management, physical therapy exercises to improve jaw mobility, and in severe cases, surgical intervention may be necessary.

Neurological Disorders

Moving on from the previous subtopic of trauma, we will now delve into neurological disorders as a potential cause of lockjaw. Neurological disorders refer to conditions that affect the nervous system, including the brain, spinal cord, and nerves. These disorders can disrupt the normal functioning of muscles and may lead to symptoms such as muscle stiffness or spasticity, which are characteristic of lockjaw. The symptoms associated with neurological disorders causing lockjaw can vary depending on the specific condition. However, common signs may include difficulty opening or closing the jaw fully, muscle spasms in the jaw area, pain or discomfort while attempting to move the jaw, and limited mobility. Treatment options for neurological disorders causing lockjaw aim to address the underlying condition and manage its symptoms. This may involve medications to reduce muscle spasms or inflammation, physical therapy techniques to improve jaw movement and flexibility, and in severe cases, surgical intervention to relieve pressure on affected nerves. It is essential for individuals experiencing these symptoms to consult a healthcare professional for an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment plan.


Some medications that may have lockjaw or similar symptoms as a side-effect include anti-nausea medications like Reglan (metoclopramide) and certain antipsychotic medications. These medications can affect nerve function and potentially lead to lockjaw. Another rare complication that can cause lockjaw is malignant hyperthermia, which can be triggered by anesthetics. This condition is characterized by a severe reaction that includes high body temperature, rapid heart rate, and muscle spasms, including lockjaw. It is important to be aware of these potential side effects and consult with a healthcare professional if experiencing such symptoms while taking these medications.

Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy is a commonly used treatment modality for various types of cancer, including head and neck cancers, which may have an impact on the development or progression of lockjaw. In some cases, radiation therapy can lead to damage to the temporomandibular joint (TMJ), resulting in TMJ disorders such as lockjaw. The exact mechanism by which radiation therapy affects the TMJ is not fully understood, but it is believed that radiation can cause inflammation and fibrosis in the joint tissues. Patients undergoing radiation therapy for cancer should be closely monitored for signs and symptoms of TMJ disorders like lockjaw, and appropriate interventions should be implemented to manage these complications effectively.

Psychogenic Factors

Psychogenic factors, such as psychological stress and anxiety, have been implicated in the exacerbation of temporomandibular joint disorders (TMD). TMD refers to a group of conditions affecting the jaw joint and muscles controlling jaw movement. When psychogenic factors are present, they can contribute to increased muscle tension and pain in the temporomandibular joint region. Understanding the role of psychogenic factors in TMD is essential for providing effective treatment options. Physical therapy is commonly used to manage TMD symptoms by addressing both physical and psychogenic aspects. Physical therapy techniques reduce muscle tension, improve range of motion, and promote relaxation. Additionally, education on stress management techniques can help individuals cope with psychological stressors that may exacerbate TMD symptoms.


Malnutrition can have detrimental effects on temporomandibular joint disorders, as it may compromise the body’s ability to heal and recover from TMD symptoms. Lockjaw, a common symptom of TMD, is characterized by the inability to open or close the mouth fully due to muscle stiffness or spasms. Malnutrition can weaken the muscles involved in jaw movement, making them more susceptible to spasms and lockjaw. Inadequate intake of essential nutrients such as protein, vitamins, and minerals can impair muscle function and lead to muscle weakness. Malnutrition also weakens the immune system, which hinders the body’s ability to fight infections that may exacerbate TMD symptoms. Therefore, proper nutrition is crucial in managing TMD and preventing complications associated with lockjaw. Ensuring a well-balanced diet rich in essential nutrients is recommended alongside other treatment options for TMD such as physical therapy and pain management techniques.

Allergic Reactions

Allergic reactions can potentially exacerbate temporomandibular joint disorders by triggering inflammation in the jaw muscles and surrounding tissues. When an individual with a temporomandibular joint disorder experiences an allergic reaction, it can lead to increased pain and stiffness in the jaw area, making it even more challenging to move the jaw properly. Common causes of allergic reactions include certain foods, medications, insect bites or stings, and environmental factors such as pollen or dust mites. Treatment options for lockjaw caused by allergic reactions may involve identifying and avoiding allergens through allergy testing, taking antihistamines or corticosteroids to reduce inflammation and manage symptoms, and using physical therapy techniques like heat therapy and gentle exercises to improve jaw mobility.

Symptoms of Lockjaw

Besides the obvious symptom of not being able to open or close your mouth, there is also pain and soreness involved, as well as possible muscle spasms, headaches, and even teeth grinding. Not all of these symptoms will be present together, and for many patients, they might not be as noticeable or only temporary. Any of the following symptoms and limited jaw movement should motivate you to seek an official diagnosis from a dental health care provider.

Difficulty Moving the Jaw

Limited range of motion in the jaw can be caused by various factors such as lockjaw, muscle tension, inflammation, or joint dysfunction. This limitation in jaw movement can significantly impact an individual’s ability to eat, speak, and perform daily activities. The severity of difficulty moving the jaw can vary from mild discomfort to complete immobility. Treatment options for this condition may include physical therapy exercises, medications for pain management and inflammation reduction, oral splints or mouth guards to alleviate pressure on the joint, and in severe cases, surgical intervention may be considered. It is important for individuals experiencing difficulty moving their jaw to seek medical evaluation and treatment to address any underlying causes and improve their quality of life.

Jaw and Joint Pain

Jaw pain associated with TMJ and lockjaw can range from mild discomfort to severe and debilitating pain. It may occur on one or both sides of the face and is often worsened by chewing or talking. Individuals with TMJ disorders like lockjaw may also experience other symptoms such as headaches, earaches, clicking or popping sounds in the jaw joint, and difficulty opening or closing the mouth. It is important to note that jaw pain can also be a symptom of other medical conditions, such as dental problems or sinus infections. Therefore, it is advisable to seek medical evaluation for an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment of jaw pain.

Muscle Spasms

Muscle spasms in the jaw can occur due to various factors such as muscle tension, inflammation, or joint dysfunction. These muscle spasms are often associated with temporomandibular joint disorder (TMD. TMD can result from trauma to the jaw, misalignment of the teeth or bite, excessive teeth grinding or clenching, arthritis, or stress. When these muscles contract involuntarily and uncontrollably, it can lead to pain and discomfort in the jaw area. In severe cases, muscle spasms may even restrict normal jaw movement and cause difficulty in speaking or eating. It is important to address these symptoms promptly by seeking medical attention to diagnose and treat any underlying conditions that may be causing the muscle spasms in order to restore proper function of the temporomandibular joint and alleviate discomfort.


Headaches can be a common symptom experienced by individuals with temporomandibular joint disorder (TMD), and they can manifest as tension-type headaches or migraines. TMD is a condition that affects the jaw joint and surrounding muscles, leading to pain, discomfort, and limited jaw movement. Headaches are often caused by the tension and inflammation in the muscles of the head and neck region due to TMD. These headaches can vary in intensity and duration, ranging from mild to severe, episodic or chronic. Some common symptoms associated with TMD-related headaches include throbbing pain, pressure around the temples or forehead, sensitivity to light or sound, dizziness, and fatigue. It is important for individuals experiencing these symptoms to consult with a healthcare professional for an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment plan.

Earache or Ringing in the Ears

Earache or ringing in the ears can also be experienced by individuals with lockjaw from temporomandibular joint disorder (TMD), and these symptoms may arise due to the close proximity of the jaw joint and surrounding structures to the ear. The exact mechanism behind this association is not fully understood; however, it is believed that dysfunction in the jaw joint can lead to referred pain or irritation of nearby nerves, resulting in ear-related symptoms. Treatment options for TMD include lifestyle modifications such as stress management techniques, physical therapy exercises, medications for pain relief, and dental devices like mouthguards or splints.

Teeth Grinding

Bruxism, a condition characterized by the grinding or clenching of teeth, is often associated with temporomandibular joint disorder (TMD) and lockjaw and can contribute to the development of additional symptoms in affected individuals. Teeth grinding can occur during the day or night and may be caused by various factors such as stress, anxiety, or an abnormal bite. Common symptoms of bruxism include tooth sensitivity, headaches, facial pain, and worn-down teeth. Treatment options for teeth grinding focus on addressing its underlying cause and reducing symptoms. These may include stress management techniques, wearing a night guard to protect against tooth damage, and dental interventions such as orthodontic treatment to correct bite abnormalities. Seeking professional help is crucial for managing bruxism effectively.

Change in Facial Structure

The facial structure may be affected by bruxism or TMD, leading to changes in the alignment and position of the jaw and facial muscles, along with lockjaw. TMD can result in pain and discomfort in the jaw area, difficulty in opening or closing the mouth fully, and changes in facial structure. These changes may manifest as asymmetry or misalignment of the jawline and facial muscles. Understanding these potential changes in the facial structure associated with bruxism can help healthcare professionals identify and address underlying causes effectively for individuals seeking relief from their symptoms.

Trouble Chewing and Swallowing Food

Chewing and swallowing food may become challenging for individuals experiencing trouble with their jaw function and muscle coordination. The symptoms of lockjaw include pain or tenderness in the jaw joint area, difficulty opening or closing the mouth fully, and a clicking or popping sound when chewing or talking. These symptoms can make it difficult for individuals with TMD to chew their food properly and swallow it without discomfort.

Risk Factors for Lockjaw

The following are some of the key risk factors for lockjaw, including age, poor dental health (like gum disease or cavities), and even stress or anxiety disorders. will explore three key risk factors for lockjaw: age, poor dental health, and stress/anxiety disorders.


Age is a significant factor that influences the occurrence and severity of lockjaw because as individuals age, their muscles and joints become less flexible and more prone to stiffness and dysfunction. This increased vulnerability makes older adults more susceptible to developing conditions such as temporomandibular joint disorder (TMD), which can lead to lockjaw. Older individuals have a higher risk of infection due to weakened immune systems, making them more likely to develop lockjaw as a result of an underlying infection in the jaw area. Proper care and regular check-ups are crucial for managing these risk factors in order to prevent or minimize the occurrence of lockjaw among this population.

Poor Oral Hygiene and Dental Infections

One of the factors influencing poor dental health is inadequate oral hygiene practices, characterized by insufficient brushing and flossing routines. Poor dental health can lead to various oral conditions, including temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJD). Risk factors for TMJD include bruxism (teeth grinding), malocclusion (improper teeth alignment), jaw trauma, and poor dental health. Inadequate oral hygiene practices can contribute to these risk factors and increase the likelihood of developing TMJD. One oral infection that can lead to lockjaw is a peritonsillar abscess, which can affect the jaw’s movement and lead to problems with the TMJ and then to lockjaw. Some rare cases of infection can have an effect on nerves or muscles in the face that can result in frequent bouts with lockjaw. It is essential for individuals desiring to serve others in promoting good oral hygiene practices to educate patients on the importance of regular brushing and flossing routines as preventive measures against TMJD and other dental conditions.

Stress and Anxiety Disorders

Stress and anxiety disorders are known to significantly impact oral health, as they can contribute to the development of temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJD). The relationship between stress/anxiety disorders and TMJD is complex, but psychological factors are believed to play a role in triggering or worsening TMJD symptoms. It has been suggested that stress-related habits such as teeth grinding or clenching may put excessive pressure on the jaw joint, leading to its dysfunction. Treatment options for TMJD caused by stress or anxiety disorders include relaxation techniques, counseling, physical therapy, medication for anxiety management, and splint therapy to alleviate jaw muscle tension. A multidisciplinary approach involving dental professionals and mental health specialists may be beneficial in managing both oral health concerns and underlying psychological issues.

Treatment Options for Lockjaw

Finally, we can explore the effectiveness of some approaches in managing the symptoms associated with lockjaw. The treatment options for lockjaw include spasm relief, TMJ treatment, physical therapy, and antibiotics.

Spasm Relief

Muscle relaxants can be effective in providing relief from muscle spasms associated with lockjaw. These spasms can cause severe pain and discomfort for individuals affected by lockjaw. Using muscle relaxants aims to reduce these spasms, allowing for improved jaw movement and alleviating symptoms. Several treatment options are available to relieve spasms associated with lockjaw. Muscle relaxants such as benzodiazepines or cyclobenzaprine may be prescribed by healthcare professionals to help relax the muscles and decrease spasm frequency and intensity. Furthermore, non-pharmacological interventions like physical therapy exercises, heat or cold therapy, and stress reduction techniques may also contribute to spasm relief. It is important to consult a healthcare professional who specializes in TMD to determine the most appropriate treatment option based on individual needs and preferences.

TMJ Treatment

Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) dysfunction can be managed through a combination of pharmacological and non-pharmacological interventions. Pharmacological treatment options for TMJ disorder include the use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to reduce pain and inflammation. Muscle relaxants may also be prescribed to alleviate muscle spasms in the jaw area. In more severe cases, corticosteroid injections may be administered to decrease inflammation and provide relief. Non-pharmacological approaches focus on addressing the underlying causes of TMJ disorder, such as stress management techniques, physical therapy exercises, and the use of oral splints or mouth guards to correct misalignment issues. These interventions aim to reduce symptoms associated with TMJ disorder, such as jaw pain, clicking sounds during movement, limited mouth opening, and difficulty chewing or speaking. It is important for individuals experiencing TMJ symptoms to consult with a healthcare professional for an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment plan tailored to their specific needs.

Physical Therapy

Physical therapy plays a crucial role in the management of temporomandibular joint (TMJ) dysfunctions by addressing muscular imbalances and promoting optimal jaw function. Physical therapy aims to alleviate these symptoms through various treatment options, such as exercises to strengthen weak muscles, manual therapy techniques to release tightness or tension, and modalities like heat or cold therapy for pain relief. A physical therapist will develop an individualized treatment plan based on the patient’s specific needs and goals. This approach not only improves muscle balance and joint mobility but also enhances the overall quality of life for individuals dealing with TMJ disorder.


Antibiotics are commonly prescribed in the management of lockjaw from infections that may contribute to inflammation and pain in the jaw joint and surrounding tissues. Antibiotics are used as part of the treatment plan to combat these infections and reduce symptoms such as pain, swelling, and discomfort. However, it is important to note that antibiotics alone may not provide complete relief for TMD symptoms. Also, know that if the lockjaw is a result of a rare tetanus infection, there is no cure. Instead, tetanus can only be allowed to run its course and treat as many of the symptoms as possible. Antibiotics are typically prescribed along with other treatment options, such as physical therapy exercises, stress management techniques, occlusal splints, or lifestyle modifications. The specific choice of antibiotic will depend on factors such as the type of infection present and individual patient characteristics. It is crucial for healthcare providers to consider all aspects when determining appropriate treatment options for patients with TMD.

Quick Medical Attention for Lockjaw is Key

Lockjaw because of its association with tetanus is a serious and potentially life-threatening condition that requires immediate medical attention. As highlighted in this blog post, the initial symptoms of lockjaw may seem mild, but the problem can quickly progress and lead to severe complications. Seeking medical help at the earliest signs of lockjaw is crucial to receive a proper diagnosis, initiate appropriate treatment, and prevent the spread of the infection. Doctors can provide essential interventions such as administering tetanus immunoglobulin and prescribing antibiotics to combat the bacterial infection. Or they can prescribe solutions to TMJ or bruxism-related jaw issues that can lead to lockjaw. Medical professionals can monitor the patient’s condition and provide necessary supportive care to manage symptoms and prevent further complications. Remember, delaying medical attention can significantly worsen the prognosis of lockjaw, making it essential to prioritize seeking medical assistance promptly.
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