If you have facial pain and spasm, you may wonder where the pain is coming from and what is triggering your symptoms. There are many different possible causes of facial pain. These may include:

  • Trigeminal neuralgia
  • TMJ
  • Hemifacial spasm
  • Cervicogenic headache
  • Migraine headaches
  • Sinus infection

All of these problems may cause you to feel pain around your eye, jaw, cheek or ear. If you are experiencing any facial pain or muscle spasm around your face, you should visit your primary care physician right away to get an accurate diagnosis.

Many people who experience pain in their face or jaw suspect that they have temporomandibular joint dysfunction, or TMJ. Sometimes, your facial pain may be caused by TMJ, and a visit to your doctor for a referral to a dental specialist would be appropriate.

Some people who have facial pain are dealing with a different condition, such as trigeminal neuralgia. This condition may require a referral to a facial pain clinic or a neurologist who treats facial pain.

Learning about the symptoms of both TMJ and trigeminal neuralgia can help you understand your specific condition and get you to the right specialist right away.

TMJ vs. Trigeminal Neuralgia

Temporomandibular joint disorders or dysfunction is a problem that comes from your jaw. Your jaw is one of the most often used joints in your body. It is active during chewing, talking and swallowing food.

Your TMJ is comprised of the articulation between your mandible (jaw bone) and your temporal area of your skull. Between the two bones of your jaw resides a small disc. This disc allows for smooth articulation between the two bones.

When you open and close your mouth, the small disc slides and allows the joint to move. Sometimes the disc becomes displaced and may cause pain, leading to TMJ dysfunction.

Trigeminal neuralgia is a condition that affects your 5th cranial nerve. You have two trigeminal nerves—one on each side of your face—that control your jaw motion and provide sensory information from your face to your brain. Sometimes, your trigeminal nerve becomes irritated, leading to facial pain or spasm.

Trigeminal neuralgia may occur as part of a neurological condition such as multiple sclerosis or stroke. Other times, trigeminal neuralgia may occur as the result of a neighboring blood vessel placing pressure along your trigeminal nerve. This pressure wears away the insulating sheath around the nerve, leading to pain.

Both trigeminal neuralgia and TMJ may cause significant face pain or spasm in your jaw muscles. But there are a couple symptoms that signal that you may have one condition or the other.

Symptoms of TMJ

There are some symptoms of TMJ that are very specific to the condition. These symptoms may be:

  • Pain in your face, ear or jaw
  • Neck pain near your ear
  • Clicking, crackling or crunching sensations in your jaw on one or both sides
  • Locking of your jaw
  • Difficulty chewing food
  • Frequent headaches
  • Jaw muscle spasm

The most typical symptom of TMJ is difficulty opening your mouth fully due to pain or muscle spasm. Symptoms are usually worsened with chewing hard foods or by opening your mouth wide. Some people with TMJ have difficulty closing their mouth all the way.

Patients with TMJ can usually also palpate, or touch, the side of their jaw and feel a crunching sensation. This is the disc that is moving out of place. As the disc in your jaw displaces, you can feel a slight pop on the side of your jaw in front of your ear. If you have any of these symptoms and suspect you have TMJ, check in with your doctor to get an accurate diagnosis and start the proper treatment for you.

Symptoms of Trigeminal Neuralgia

Trigeminal neuralgia is an irritation of the nerve that travels to your face, cheek and jaw, therefore your symptoms will likely be felt there. Symptoms of trigeminal neuralgia include:

  • Sharp, electric-like pain in one side of your face, cheek or jaw
  • Tooth pain on one side
  • Pain just in front of one ear
  • Abnormal sensation like numbness or tingling in one side of your face

Typically, trigeminal neuralgia is characterized by periods of mild ache or no pain whatsoever followed by episodes of sharp shooting pains that feel like electric shocks to your face. Most symptoms of trigeminal neuralgia are unilateral-they occur only on one side of the face.

There are usually some triggers that bring about your trigeminal neuralgia symptoms. More common triggers include:

  • Brushing lightly on one side of your face.
  • Shaving
  • Chewing food
  • Excessive talking
  • Brushing your teeth

Any of these activities cause some interaction with the sensory nerves in your face, and they may cause the sharp pains that accompany trigeminal neuralgia. If you have any of these symptoms, consult your doctor to get an accurate diagnosis and start the right treatment for your condition.

As you can see, there is some overlap between the symptoms of trigeminal neuralgia and TMJ. Both may cause facial pain or jaw spasm. An accurate diagnosis can be made for either condition by working closely with your doctor and by accurately monitoring your symptoms.

Facial pain may be caused by many different conditions. Sometimes, pain on one side of your face may be caused by TMJ, and some people with facial pain and spasm have trigeminal neuralgia. By understanding the symptoms of both conditions, you can be sure to get the right diagnosis and get started on the proper treatment right away.
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