Understanding Fibromyalgia Jaw Pain: Causes, Symptoms, & Relief Strategies

Are you struggling with jaw pain as a part of your fibromyalgia experience and trying to figure out why it's happening? You're not alone.

In this article, we delve into the causes and reasons for this challenging symptom, the difficulties in diagnosis, and evidence-based suggestions to help reduce your pain.

How fibromyalgia affects jaw pain

What causes jaw pain? The link between fibromyalgia and jaw pain often lies in what's known as central sensitization.

Central sensitization happens when the nervous system has become overloaded and interprets all sorts of stimuli, such as changes in temperature and touch, as dangerous. The system then produces pain as a result, even if the body is not physically harmed. This overprotective pain system can lead to pain in various parts of the body, including the jaw.

How does the pain response system become heightened? Understanding the connection between fibromyalgia and jaw pain involves a mix of neurobiological (brain and body) and psychological factors – it's a complex relationship that scientists are still working to fully understand.

The role of stress in jaw pain

Stress is a key factor for causing and increasing many symptoms of fibromyalgia, including those affecting the jaw.

When stressed, you might unconsciously tense your muscles, clench your jaw, or grind your teeth, which can worsen jaw pain.

TMJ disorder & fibromyalgia-related jaw pain

You might have heard of both TMJ (temporomandibular joint) disorder and fibromyalgia-related jaw pain. These are two different conditions, and although both conditions share some common symptoms, they also have some distinct characteristics.

Some commonly shared symptoms between fibromyalgia and TMJ disorders1,2 include:

  • pain when using or moving the jaw
  • discomfort near the ear area
  • limited mouth-opening abilities
  • headaches.

TMJ disorder explained

TMJ disorder primarily affects the temporomandibular joint – where your jaw attaches to your skull. You can feel this joint move if you put your fingers on either side of your face, just in front of each ear, and open and close your jaw.

The TMJ is integral in chewing and speaking, and TMJ disorder can be caused by jaw injuries, misalignment of the joint (such as an underbite, where the bottom teeth stick out further than the top teeth), arthritis, or habits such as teeth grinding. Even chewing on hard things can make the joint ache.

When this joint and the surrounding muscles are affected, people can experience pain and stiffness in the jaw, head and neck. 

Fibromyalgia-related jaw pain explained

In contrast to TMJ disorder, jaw pain related to fibromyalgia isn’t typically linked to inflammation or TMJ injury, and might not be linked to specific jaw movements. And because it’s part of a broader pattern of musculoskeletal pain, you’ll probably have aches and pain in other areas of your body, and that pain might move around and come and go on its own.

So what does fibromyalgia jaw pain feel like?

The main symptoms of fibromyalgia-related jaw pain is aching in the muscles of your face, head, and neck, and many people also have limited jaw mobility (often due to muscle tension and fatigue). These symptoms can make everyday activities such as chewing, swallowing and speaking difficult.

In addition to pain and mobility challenges, you might also notice:

  • clicking or popping sounds when you open or close your mouth
  • a feeling that your jaw is "stuck" or "locked”
  • swelling on the side of your face
  • changes in how your upper and lower teeth align, or an uncomfortable bite.

Diagnosis challenges: fibromyalgia & TMJ disorders

Fibro and TMJ disorder have similar symptoms2, and it is possible to have both. The main difference between TMJ disorder and fibromyalgia is that TMJ disorder specifically affects the jaw joint and surrounding muscles. In contrast, fibromyalgia is characterized by widespread chronic pain (pain in various body parts for more than three months) that can impact the entire body.

In addition to chronic pain, many people also experience other symptoms of fibromyalgia, such as:

  • persistent fatigue
  • digestive problems such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • mood changes
  • sleep disturbances, such as sleeplessness and waking up feeling tired (jaw pain that extends to the head and neck, can make it hard to find a comfortable sleeping position, worsening sleep quality)
  • cognitive difficulties, often referred to as “brain fog”.

Diagnosing fibromyalgia involves a careful process of elimination, and healthcare providers typically only consider this diagnosis after ruling out other causes (such as TMJ disorder).

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Treatment options for fibromyalgia jaw pain

Living with fibromyalgia jaw pain requires a holistic and understanding approach. The most effective treatment plans are usually multidisciplinary, catering to your unique needs and promoting overall wellbeing.

A multidisciplinary approach

Studies show that the most effective treatment for fibromyalgia is a multidisciplinary approach. That might include things such as:

This whole-person approach addresses not just the physical aspects of fibromyalgia jaw pain but also the psychological and lifestyle factors that play a role in your overall health.

Physical therapy and exercise for jaw pain due to fibromyalgia may focus on strengthening the jaw muscles and muscle relaxation, for example through massage therapy, which also enhances blood flow4. If overly tense muscles are causing your pain, other relaxation techniques, such as mindfulness and managing stress, might benefit you a lot.

Finding a balance between staying active, even when you’re tired and aching, without pushing through fibromyalgia pain to the point of a flare-up is also very important. Working with a trained physical therapist can help you to find your baseline and make sure that the exercise you do is effective.

For a multidisciplinary approach to your pain, download our mobile app for free from the Apple App Store or Google Play Store for immediate access to some of our content and to see your support options.

Short-term relief

Pain relief methods such as massage and hot or cold compresses can offer additional, short-term relief, while physical therapy can enhance muscle strength and mobility in the affected area.

These non-pharmaceutical treatments can often work in tandem with medication-based treatments to provide more effective and holistic care.

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as aspirin and ibuprofen, can reduce pain while muscle relaxants can ease your muscle tension and reduce spasms if you experience them.

We believe that medicines are great enablers, reducing your discomfort enough that you can also work with other treatments that are likely to have longer term benefits. And please always chat with your healthcare provider about your symptoms and any side effects or concerns that you have.

Coping with fibromyalgia jaw pain

As anyone with fibromyalgia will tell you, living with ongoing pain can be very hard. 

You can get great support and comfort from loved ones, friends, and various support groups. As well as improving your wellbeing and overall quality of life, emotional support can directly impact your pain and strengthen your ability to cope with your symptoms.

The National Fibromyalgia & Chronic Pain Association (NFMCPA) and various Facebook groups dedicated to “invisible” illnesses like fibromyalgia offer understanding and resources5. If you need a supportive group of peers who understand what you are going through, you are welcome to join our Living well with fibromyalgia Facebook community.

Stay up-to-date

If you'd like to stay informed about the latest clinical trials for fibromyalgia and TMJ disorders, ask your doctor for more information and to refer you to reputable websites such as policylab.us and ufhealth.org. These sources offer reliable updates and perspectives regarding current ongoing studies.