It’s the stuff that nightmares are made of: one day you wake up, and you can’t open your mouth to yawn. You can’t open your mouth to brush your teeth, or eat, or have a drink of your morning coffee. You can’t talk, you can’t do anything that involves opening your mouth. Scenarios like these may come from creepy short stories or scary horror movies, but to some people, the nightmare of lockjaw is all too real. Here are some ways to get rid of this potentially serious condition.
What is Lockjaw?
Medical professionals call lockjaw by its scientific name, trismus. The word “trismus” is often used to differentiate the condition that affects the mandible from tetanus infections, which is also known as “lockjaw.” Lockjaw affects the fifth cranial nerve (the trigeminal nerve), which is responsible for sensory and some motor functions for the mandible.
A lockjawed person temporarily (and in some cases, permanently) loses the ability to open and/or close his or her mouth. Some cases of lockjaw can cause extreme pain and discomfort. When left untreated, lockjaw can permanently impair the motor functions of a person, particularly when it comes to chewing or talking.
Causes of Lockjaw
There are many things that can cause lockjaw:
- Inflamed muscles and soft tissue is the leading cause of lockjaw. Impacted wisdom teeth can cause the soft tissue surrounding the tooth to get inflamed or abscessed, straining the trigeminal nerve.
- Temporomandibular joint syndrome can also cause lockjaw. In TMJ disorders, the nerve may be suffering from stress or strain.
- Tetanus infections are a common cause of lockjaw. Tetanus affects skeletal muscles and can lead to painful and violent spasms. One of the first signs of tetanus infections is lockjaw.
- Side effects of some medications, particularly those used for people with psychiatric illnesses and mental disorders. You should always read the insert to check if an immobile jaw is part of the side effects of the medication.
- Drugs like MDMA and other amphetamines can cause lockjaw.
Lockjaw can be quite serious when left untreated, or when the condition does not dissipate by itself. Some cases of lockjaw may go away on their own, but it’s best to seek medical attention when you’re not sure that the illness will not pass.
Here are some of the treatments used for lockjaw:
- Warm compress. For mild cases of lockjaw, a hot water bag wrapped in a few terry cloth towels can help relax the muscles, as well as relieve some of the pain that comes with the condition. For severe cases of lockjaw, a warm compress can help reduce the stress and pain.
- Dental surgery. Lockjaw caused by impacted wisdom teeth can be eliminated and corrected by removing the tooth through dental surgery. Dental surgery is often more preferred than allowing the tooth to break out before it is extracted.
- Physical therapy. For patients suffering from temporomandibular joint syndrome, physical therapy is a recommended to help restore the motor functions of your jaw. Some physical therapists may recommend the use of orthodontic appliances and tools to help you recover from lockjaw.
- Muscle relaxants. Some cases of lockjaw may be caused by tensed-up muscles in the jaw that remain contracted even if they’re not being used. Controlled doses of muscle relaxants can help relieve or cure lockjaw.
- Anti-inflammatories. For lockjaw caused by abscesses or inflammation, antibiotic treatment coupled with anti-inflammatory medication can help reduce the swelling that comes with lockjaw.
Lockjaw is uncomfortable once it sets in, but it is a condition that can easily be prevented. Here are some ways for you to avoid lockjaw altogether:
- Chew properly. Your jaw can get temporarily locked if you don’t chew your food properly. Take your time during chewing to avoid putting unnecessary stress on your jaw.
- Avoid stress. Stress is a leading factor in temporomandibular joint syndrome. Manage your stress accordingly to prevent getting lockjaw.
- Get vaccinated. The primary symptom of tetanus is lockjaw. While tetanus is still a pervasive problem all over the world, you can minimize risk of contracting the infection with a vaccine.
- Avoid illicit drugs. Amphetamines, particularly MDMA, can cause temporary lockjaw. To avoid health issues associated with illicit and illegal or controlled substances, it’s best not to use them. If you need to take neuroleptics or other prescription medication, make sure to carefully read the inserts and consult your doctor regarding possible side effects.
The worst effects of lockjaw may be nightmarish, but you don’t have to go through the worst possible scenario. With these tips, you can get rid of a bad case of lockjaw and get back to your normal, everyday routines.