Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an inflammatory disorder that affects the joints, particularly the hands and feet. However, other joints in the body can be affected as well, including the jaw. We often forget how frequently we use our jaw to talk, to eat, to drink, because it comes so naturally. If your rheumatoid arthritis is getting in the way of you enjoying your favorite meals, it’s time to talk to your doctor!

What is the TMJ?

The TMJ is the temporomandibular joint–your jaw. This joint is responsible for opening and closing your mouth, a very important task! This everyday bodily function can be disrupted by TMJ disorder, teeth grinding, and even rheumatoid arthritis. Keeping your TMJ “well-oiled” is crucial to a pain-free life. 

What are the warning signs?

If you are noticing pain near your ear while eating or chewing, it’s time to take a closer look. You may hear clicking in your jaw, or even a locking sensation where you can’t seem to open your mouth comfortably. As this progresses, these pains and sensations will occur whenever you have any sort of RA flare-up. 

As time goes on, if this pain is left untreated, you could see more severe symptoms. The pain will increase and become more frequent, and swelling will begin. If the swelling persists, you have the potential to dislocate your jaw, leaving you unable to eat or breathe properly. With that being said, this disease should not be taken lightly! 

Who is at a higher risk?

Those with RA who leave their symptoms untreated are at a higher risk for developing jaw pain. If you are someone with a history of jaw issues, your likelihood of experiencing this RA-related jaw pain is quite high. Children are also at risk for this condition. Kids who have JIA, juvenile idiopathic arthritis, are more apt to develop TMJ. For children, if this problem goes untreated, it can result in facial growth issues as they age. It is crucial that they see a rheumatologist. 

Living with RA jaw pain

It is important to make sure your jaw pain is not caused by other conditions. If your RA is well taken care of, your jaw pain may be unrelated. In the event that this pain is caused by your RA, there are ways to treat it. Doctors recommend a warm or cold compress to reduce the pain and inflammation during a flare-up. You can also choose to eat softer foods, to lessen the amount of chewing necessary. If your jaw pain occurs at night, you may consider a nighttime mouthguard. 

For more severe cases, your rheumatologist may prescribe medication to control the symptoms. Some may receive physical therapy for their pain, or even injections. The most important part of this disease is to address it sooner than later. Prolonging your doctor visit will only worsen the condition.