Jaw popping and clicking is a noticeable symptom of temporomandibular joint disorders (TMJ or TMD). It’s also a symptom you can readily link to TMJ, unlike other symptoms that may be more mysterious in their connection (such as tingling and numbness in the fingers). People often ask us if jaw-popping and clicking sounds are a definite sign of a TMJ problem.

Not necessarily. Jaw noises are common and not always associated with TMJ. However, you should talk to a TMJ dentist if you have other TMJ symptoms besides popping or clicking, even if you think those symptoms might have another explanation.

Jaw Noises Are Common

As with any joint in the human body, your jaw joint can sometimes make noises. Many people experience jaw joint noises regularly.

How common are jaw noises? We don’t know, but estimates range from 30% to 67% of people experience jaw noises. Even at the low end, this estimate is greater than the estimated prevalence of TMJ, typically quoted as between 5% and 12%. So, it makes sense that many people have jaw noises but don’t have TMJ.

What Causes Common Jaw Sounds

woman holding her jaw in painA displaced disc is a common cause of jaw sounds that may not indicate a problem. Your temporomandibular joint consists of two bones: the mandible, also called your jaw, and the temporal bone, part of the skull. Between these two bones is a disc of cartilage. The disc is a cushion between the two bones but also allows the jaw to move more freely–sliding and bending like a hinge.

This disc is supposed to be held in place by ligaments, but it can sometimes slide out of the joint. The popping sound occurs when the disc slips back into place. You may also notice that the jaw makes an irregular motion when this happens.

Having a displaced disc isn’t inherently a problem. However, it can become a problem, as we’ll talk about later.

Different from Cracking Your Knuckles

One misconception people have about a cracking jaw is that it is the same as cracking your knuckles. However, the two sounds are very different.

When you crack your knuckles, you exert force on the joints to move them in a way they don’t normally move. This expands the joints, creating a pressure drop, which bursts nitrogen bubbles in the fluid around the cushioning discs in these joints. The dissolved nitrogen bubbles normally reform in the fluid after about 20 minutes. There is little evidence that cracking your knuckles causes problems, unlike the displaced disc in TMJ, which can lead to ongoing issues.

When to Be Concerned about Jaw Sounds

When should you be concerned about jaw sounds? Essentially, three situations indicate you should worry about jaw sounds:

  • You have other TMJ symptoms
  • Your jaw sound worsens or changes
  • Your jaw sound stops

If you experience these situations, you should consult a TMJ dentist.

Other TMJ Symptoms

You should talk to a TMJ dentist if you have other TMJ symptoms besides your jaw noises. Some of the most common TMJ symptoms include:

  • Jaw pain
  • Headaches and migraines
  • Neck pain
  • Irregular jaw motion
  • Limited jaw motion
  • Locked jaw
  • Tooth damage
  • Tinnitus, earache, or vertigo
  • Difficulty chewing or swallowing

If you experience one or more of these additional symptoms, you should suspect TMJ. Schedule an appointment with a TMJ dentist to get a complete evaluation of your jaw joint.

Your Jaw Sound Worsens or Changes

Another cause for concern is if your jaw sounds worsen or change. Most often, the worsening jaw sound simply becomes more frequent. If you used to get jaw sounds occasionally, but now you hear them every day, you likely have TMJ–and it’s getting worse. Getting treatment can stop the progression of the disease and prevent the need for invasive treatment, including surgery.

You should also worry if your jaw sounds change from popping and clicking to grinding (crepitus). Crepitus means that your cushioning disc is either constantly out of place or is degraded to the point where it allows your bones to grind against each other.

Why You Should Worry If Jaw Sounds Stop

The most common reason for popping and clicking jaw sounds is that the cushioning disc of the jaw is slipping in and out of place. The sound typically occurs when the disc slips back into place. The disc isn’t slipping into place if you aren’t hearing sounds.

When the disc is constantly out of place, your bones will likely start grinding against each other. You might also develop a locked jaw because the out-of-place disc can interfere with the motion of the jaw.

Crepitus: a Jaw Sound That’s Always a Problem

Most often, people report popping or clicking jaw sounds, but another common jaw sound indicates a different problem. Crepitus is a grinding sound in the jaw joint. This is the sound caused by two bones scraping together as they move. If you hear crepitus, it might be too late for noninvasive TMJ treatments. However, it’s not too late to stop the ongoing effects of bone grinding, including the destruction of the jaw joint and painful bone spurs.

Get Treatment for Jaw Joint Sounds

If you experience popping and clicking in your jaw joints that you suspect might be linked to TMJ, let the Michigan Head & Neck Institute dentists help.

Please call (586) 573-0438 or use our online form to request an appointment at our Warren, MI, office serving the entire Detroit area.