Jaw Pain on ONE Side but Not Both Sides
Updated: Oct 12, 2022
If the jaw is one whole piece, why would it hurt on just the left side or right side but not both sides? This article will explore all of the possible causes of why your jaw hurts on only one side, whether it is teeth related or not. That way you'll know what to do in order to address this malady that is plaguing your jaw.
Table of Contents:
Can your jaw hurt on just one side?
It is not unnatural for your jaw to be hurting on one side because whatever condition that is causing it could be located on just that particular side. The main reason why you would only feel pain on one side is because the cranial nerves which control jaw sensations is split into two sides, the right side and the left side.
If the affliction is located on the right side, your brain would receive signals for right side jaw pain only.
Consequently, if the affliction is located on the left side, your brain would receive signals for jaw pain on the left side only.
Here is a diagram illustrating how the cranial nerves are split into halves or rather, come in pairs:
There are 12 cranial nerves in total but there is a separate one that controls the left side vs the right side.
This means that there are technically 24 nerves because they come in pairs.
Therefore if your jaw just hurts on one side, it simply means that the problem is isolated to that particular side. In order for you to feel pain on both sides of your jaw, it would require a problem to be present on both sides.
That makes sense doesn't it? Now without further ado, we will dive into what can cause pain to be isolated to one half of your jaw.
Causes of one sided jaw pain
Most people associate jaw pain on one side to be of dental origins but there are actually a plethora of conditions which can cause the same symptoms. We will explore as many of these causes as possible.
The jaw is connected to the skull via a joint called the TMJ (temporomandibular joint) with one on each side. If you're having jaw joint pain on one side, it could mean that there is a dysfunction with one of the joints.
Joint inflammation from overuse
Worn down joint from overuse
Here is a picture showing inflammation with the TMJ:
Symptoms: Usually if you're having problems with the TMJ, it'll affect all movements with your jaw. Since there are two joints, you don't necessarily have to have problems with both of them because just one could be dysfunctional while the other one is healthy.
Jaw hurts when opening mouth
Hurts when you eat
Waking up with jaw pain on one side
Sore jaw on one side
Treatment: Treatment for TMJ related pain is multi-disciplinary because it involves your dentist, physical therapist, and a TMJ specialist.
Night guard - your dentist can make a customized mouth guard that can help protect your teeth and put the joint into a more comfortable resting position.
Massage therapy - your physical therapist can help relieve the tension in the TMJ muscles that attach to the joint. They can also prescribe you TMJ exercises that can strength and stretch the muscles.
TMJ injections - the specialist can do trigger point therapy with injections that contain either steroids or local anesthetics that can help the muscle relax. Alternatively they could also flush out the joint with a special solution. Last but not least, they can also give you botox injections to decrease any teeth grinding or clenching that may be contributing to the symptoms.
Since your teeth are literally embedded into the jaw, its not unusual for the pain to be dental related. Especially since there is no shortage of dental conditions which can cause you pain.
Large tooth decay. A big enough cavity can reach the nerve which can cause excruciating pain. The enamel is not alive so you won't feel any pain while the cavity is small but once it reaches the pulp, you will feel it because it is filled with nerve endings. Since the tooth is only on one side of the jaw, your jaw will only hurt on that side.
Unhealthy tooth nerve. An infected tooth nerve can die and cause pain. Since teeth are separated into quadrants, you will only feel pain on the affected side.
Dental abscess. A tooth abscess is filled with infected pus that can swell up and expand. The increase in swelling causes a lot of pressure on the jaw. The abscess usually progresses through stages which gets progressively worse.
Gum abscess. The abscess doesn't have to originate from the tooth because it can come from the gums as well. Therefore, where ever the gum abscess is located will determine the side of the jaw that hurts.
Impacted wisdom teeth. Impacted wisdom teeth are notorious for causing jaw pain. In fact it could hurt so bad that you'll feel more than just the jaw because the entire face could be hurting. Its unusual for both sides to hurt at the same time because normally only one side bothers you at a time. Maybe you can consider yourself lucky if only half of your jaw hurts rather than the entire mouth.
Bleeding gums. Where ever the gums are inflamed and bleeding will be where the jaw hurts. This can usually be attributed to gingivitis or periodontitis (advanced gum disease).
Misaligned teeth. If your teeth are very crooked and misaligned, it could put pressure on one side of the jaw more than the other. Over time this can lead to jaw soreness and pain on the side which receives the brunt of the load.
Symptoms: If you feel any of these symptoms, it could very well mean that it could be teeth related.
Sudden jaw pain that feels sharp
Swelling on one side
Toothache on one side
Pain that comes and goes
Constant but dull pain
Pain upon chewing
Teeth feels raw
Gums feel raw
Treatment: The treatment will vary depending on what the specific dental cause is but the vast majority of them do require intervention from a dentist. This means that you can't wait and try to treat it at home.
Dental filling. If the pain is coming from tooth decay, you could just have the decay removed and filled in with a tooth filling material.
Root canal. If the nerve is unhealthy you can just remove the nerve from the tooth.
Tooth extraction. If the tooth is beyond saving, you may need the entire tooth removed.
Abscess drainage. If you're having pain from any type of swelling, it is most likely an abscess that will need to be drained.
Orthodontics. An uneven bite can put uneven pressure on one side of your jaw. In order to correct that you would need to align the bite so that the pressure is spread out more evenly.
Deep teeth cleaning. Any sort of gum issue where you get a lot of bleeding will most likely need a deep teeth cleaning. The cause is usually from untreated tartar or a gum abscess.
If you were recently involved in an altercation and one side of your jaw hurts afterwards, you could very well have a broken jaw. The reason why only one side hurts is because usually one side receives the blow or impact from the trauma.
Typically the body of the mandible, your lower jaw will get fractured from the blow but the opposite side condyle will sustain some damage as well. Since the condyle is smaller you may not notice it as much as the body of the jaw which is larger. The pain from the body of the jaw may eclipse the pain coming from the smaller condyle.
Here is an x-ray showing a jaw fracture:
Jaw pain on one side
Swelling on the face and in the mouth
Bite feels off or misaligned
Can't close your mouth completely
Difficulty eating and speaking
Open or closed reduction. This is the process of putting the jaw back in the proper place. It can either be done via the open technique or the closed technique. Both methods will require many weeks for it to heal.
Procedure requires multiple hours in the operating room and a hospital stay.
An ear infection can potentially cause one side of your jaw to hurt if only one ear gets infected. The reason is because the facial nerve is very close to the ear so if the infection presses on the nerve, it could feel like something is wrong with your jaw. In fact, we've had some situations where the ear infection can press on the nerve enough that the jaw actually feels like it went numb.
Symptoms: Typically any soft of infection related to the ear will potentially cause pain in the jaw on the same side. Since you have two ears, if the right ear gets infected you'll have jaw pain on the right side near the right ear. If the left ear gets infected you'll consequently have the left jaw and left ear hurting.
Treatment: Usually an ear infection is treated by your ear nose throat doctor (ENT) so your dentist would give you a referral for that. In case you were wondering what to expect, the treatment most often involves a course of antibiotics and pain medication.
A sinus infection can cause inflammation in the maxillary sinus, which is the upper jaw cheek bone area. It is usually of bacterial origins but it could be from a cold or allergies as well. You have one sinus on each side of your face so if one of them gets inflamed, you'll feel like the jaw is hurting on that side.
Nasal congestion - may feel like it is difficult to breathe.
Post nasal drip - drainage of mucus down your throat.
Facial pressure or pain around the upper jaw.
Fatigue and tiredness
Difficulty smelling things
This is a painful condition that can cause electric shocks to the affected side of one's face. Depending on whether the condition affects the nerve on the right side of the face or the left side, you may feel jaw pain on that particular side. The reason is because the affected nerve, cranial nerve V controls the sensation for the front portion of your face from the eyebrows down to your chin.
Here is a diagram showing the facial surfaces that this condition can affect:
Episodes of severe or shooting pains that feel like electric shocks
Spontaneous pain when eating, speaking, or brushing teeth
Affects one side of the face and jaw at a time
Rarely occurs at night while sleeping
Attacks become more frequent and intense over time
Anticonvulsants - these typically do work but may lose effectiveness over time.
Antispasmodic agents - these include muscle relaxers.
Botox injections - can potentially help with the condition and only considered if medication doesn't work.
Surgery - Options include microvascular decompression, gamma knife, glycerol injections, balloon compression, and radiofrequency thermal lesioning.
This is a bone infection that can cause inflammation and possibly bone death. The main cause of it is usually from staphylococcus bacteria. The bacteria usually reach the bone by first entering the blood stream and then traveling to the affected location. Since your jaw is made of bone, it is possible that this bone infection can travel to the jaw. If it does, your jaw will hurt on the affected side.
Antibiotics - usually penicillin that is administered via IV.
Incision and drainage of the infection.
Surgical removal of the dead bone.
Tumors & Cysts
Unbeknownst to most people but you can get cancer in your jaw and if you get it on just one side, you'll have jaw pain on that affected side. These tumors can continue to grow and expand when left untreated. This increase in size is extremely painful as well as disfiguring. Aside from the jaw pain, it can make one side of your face look significantly larger than the other side.
Here are some common tumors and cysts that can affect the jaw:
Ameloblastoma. Rare but benign tumor that affects the jaw near the molars.
Dentigerous cysts. This is the most common cyst that affects the jaw.
Odontoma. These tumors form near the teeth and actually look like they're growing extra teeth!
Central giant cell granuloma. Most often affects the front portion of the lower jaw.
Odontogenic keratocyst. Slowly growing but highly destructive. Usually forms near the wisdom teeth.
Odontogenic myxoma. Slow growing benign tumor that most often affects the lower jaw. It has a tendency to displace teeth once it grows large enough.
All treatment for these jaw cancers require surgical removal as well as jaw reconstruction. Therefore they will cause jaw pain while they're there and will still cause you pain even after the surgery...
Did you know that having jaw pain on one side or both sides is a symptom for a heart attack? It isn't likely IF it is the only symptom that you're feeling so you shouldn't be alarmed if only your jaw is hurting.
However if you're experiencing these OTHER symptoms in addition to your jaw hurting, it could very well mean you're having a heart attack.
Uncomfortable pressure in the middle of your chest. It can last for a few minutes but comes and goes.
Pain on one side of your body which includes arms, back, neck, jaw, and stomach.
Shortness of breath.
Cold sweat, nausea or light headed.
If you are feeling similar symptoms to the ones above, you should call for help immediately.
Home remedies to alleviate jaw pain
If you're not able to see the dentist immediately, there are remedies which you can use at home to help lessen the jaw pain temporarily. These are not permanent solutions but are simply meant to make it more comfortable and bearable for you while you wait for your dentist appointment.
Pain medication. Over the counter painkillers like ibuprofen and acetaminophen will always help alleviate some of that pain. It may take over an hour after taking it before you start feeling the effects. Pain medication should not be taken long term so try to see your dentist as soon as possible.
Hot compress. Jaw soreness could be due to muscle tension in the chewing muscles. If that is the case, using a hot compress could help it heal faster by bringing in blood flow to the area.
Cold compress. Sudden jaw pain and swelling on one side could be alleviated by using a cold compress. The cold can help numb the area and the pressure from compressing on the swelling can help prevent it from expanding.
Rest your jaw. Try to not use your jaw so much so that you can give it time to rest. The best way to do this is by going into the jaw resting position, which is teeth slightly apart and tongue to the roof of the mouth.
Self massage. Tender and sore TMJ muscles can benefit from being massaged because they could be hurting due to muscle knots. If you find these knots, you should try to massage them out. The manual therapy will break up the knots and bring blood flow to the area to help it recover.
Avoid hard foods. If your jaw hurts and is already sore, you may want to avoid eating hard foods which can aggravate it more. Try eating softer foods for the next few days so that you can give your mouth a break.
Sleep on opposite jaw. Avoid sleeping on the affected side if you are a side sleeper. Instead turn onto the other but healthy side and sleep that way instead. This will put less pressure on the afflicted jaw.
The Verdict - To see a doctor or not?
Hopefully that answers your question of why your jaw hurts on one side. Only one side hurts because there is a separate nerve that controls sensation to the right side vs the left side. If the condition which is causing you pain is isolated to a particular side, only the affected side would hurt.
From all of the conditions listed above, all of the required treatment involves a dentist or other healthcare professional. Therefore if your jaw is hurting, you should get a medical consultation because home remedies can only temporarily alleviate the pain. Although if you think you're having a heart attack, you shouldn't wait for an appointment and go to the hospital immediately.
Author: Written by Dr David Chen, an emergency dentist in long island city.