A Guide to Jaw Injuries
Of the various types of dental emergency that we have already discussed on this site, jaw injuries can be some of the most serious. The reason for this is that damage to the jaw bone is usually done through a traumatic experience. In most cases, it is due to sporting injury or some sort of collision, for example a car crash.
What this means is that jaw injuries are often accompanied by other types of injury, such as injury to the face, mouth and teeth. Neck injuries are also very common with jaw injuries and therefore a careful diagnosis has to be made.
These sorts of complications mean that you should visit a hospital for emergency attention, if you believe you have broken your jaw. If your teeth also need treatment, then you should be able to see an oral surgeon while at the hospital. In this way, you can get all of your injuries assessed at the same time and dealt with in the correct order.
Tell me more about the jaw joint
The jaw joints are known as the Temporomandibular joints and they are a very complex area of the human body. Research suggests that pain and problems with the jaw affects around 40% of people during some point in their lives. Because these joints are so complex, they can cause many subsidiary problems, such as unexpected (and seemingly inexplicable) pain in the face, neck and even in the back. It can also cause headaches and causes some people to grind their teeth heavily at night.
The majority of these symptoms are caused because of a malocclusion. A malocclusion occurs when a person’s bite is not quite properly aligned, creating either an underbite or an overbite. The more severe the underbite or overbite is, then the more severe the accompanying aches and pains can be.
In many people, temporamandibular dysfunction occurs naturally. There are a number of things that your dentist can do to help ease the problem. For example, you dentist can suggest physiotherapy exercises for you to do each day, which may ease any pain, aching or stiffness you may have around the jaw area.
Many people choose to have orthodontic treatment to re-align their teeth so that they no longer have an underbite or overbite. This is usually done over a two or three year period by wearing braces, which gradually move the teeth into the optimum position. In very severe or extreme cases, the jaw may need to be moved too, which would require surgery. Many people have orthdontic work as a teenager as their teeth are still moving naturally – however it is becoming far more popular for adults who are interested purely in the cosmetic results of an improved set of teeth.
So what happens when you break your jaw?
If you break your jaw then this can lead to similar problems as you would experience if you had a TMJ disorder naturally. If the jaw is broken and it is not treated properly or quickly enough, then the jaw and teeth can become misaligned. This can cause difficulties in chewing, eating, talking, swallowing and even breathing.
As the jaw is misaligned (even slightly), actions such as chewing and talking put extra pressure on the jawbone in ways that it has not experienced before. This leads to aches and pains and also to additional wear and tear on your teeth. Over the long-term, this can cause damage to the teeth which could be avoided
So what treatment do I need if I break my jaw?
The most important thing that you need to do if you break or dislocate your jaw is to ensure that it is returned to its natural position as soon as possible. This requires emergency treatment. You cannot replace a dislocated jaw yourself – if you try it could create longer-term damage and even more complications, as well as being a particularly painful action to try and take.
Your doctor will need to ascertain how badly the jaw is broken. If you have only sustained a minor break, then your doctor may decide that painkillers and a liquid diet are the best course of action. As long as you do not open your mouth too wide (try not to yawn!), your jaw should naturally re-set itself over the course of about six weeks.
However, what happens if the break is more serious? The jaw still needs to be returned to its original position, but it may need extra support to stay in place while it heals. Your doctor will probably prescribe some anti-spasmodic medicines to relax your jaw muscles. Once this is done, in the many cases your doctor will be able to move the jaw back into position by hand. It may then need to be wired into place, usually for around six to eight weeks. You will also need to stick to a soft foods/liquid diet.
In very severe cases, where the jaw bone is badly broken, surgery may be required. This allows the jaw to be moved carefully back into place and, once again, the jaw is wired such to ensure stability.
How do I know if I have a broken jaw?
You might think that if you suffer a blow in the face which is hard enough to break your jaw, you will be fully aware of it. However, that is not always the case. Often, with this kind of accident, individuals may be disorientated or concussed. They may have sustained a number of injuries to the face and neck which mean that it is hard to localise any pain and identify exactly what is causing it. In these sorts of situations, you need to be aware of the symptoms so that you can identify whether an individual has a broken jaw or not.
In fact, some people who suffer a fracture to their jawbone may not realise it unless they are watching out for the appropriate symptoms. Of course, they will notice the pain. But some of the more specific symptoms may only be noticeable after the event. They may easily think that they just have severe bruising.
People who suffer a broken jaw bone often find that they have difficulty breathing. It can feel as though their airways are slightly blocked and, if their mouth is bleeding, they may find it hard not to breathe that blood into their lungs. They can also have difficulty talking.
If a person is suffering from concussion, it may be difficult to get them to focus on this symptoms immediately. After the event, therefore, you should watch for problems eating or chewing. On occasions, a broken jaw can also cause an infection.
What can I do before reaching the doctor?
Broken jaws usually occur in accidents, often on the sports field or in traffic accidents. It isn’t always easy to reach a phone or to have medical assistance arriving quickly. So what can you do if you suspect a person has a broken jaw?
In all cases of broken jaws, immediate emergency treatment is recommended. In the meantime, you can help to stop the swelling by applying an ice pack to the side of the face. If they are bleeding, you may need something to catch the blood flow.
You must never try to replace the jaw bone yourself. However, if the jaw is badly broken, you may need to provide extra support by wrapping a bandage around the head and supporting the jaw like a sling. Don’t forget, also, that people with broken jaws can have problems breathing and swallowing. Therefore, do not try to give people any over-the-counter painkillers as they may have difficulty swallowing them. Ensure that any blood flow is not causing any danger of choking.
What about in the future?
If you need to have your jaw wired, then it usually takes six to eight weeks for the jaw bone to stabilise. During this time, however, your dentist or doctor may be able to gradually reduce the amount of support so that you have more flexibility as time goes on. This can make it more comfortable, so that you can talk more easily. It will also stop your jaw from becoming too stiff as it allows some more movement.
The complexity of the TMJ joints means that they do not always heal perfectly. In some cases, when the jaw has been broken, you may continue to suffer irregular aches and pains because the bite is not aligned in the way that it used to be. This may eventually require surgery to correct it in the long term.
There is also the possibility that you jaw bone is more likely to become fractured or dislocated in the future, when you have done it in the past. If you play a physical contact sport, it will help prevent further injury if you wear a plastic mouth guard.