What’s really going on if your only symptom is a grating or clicking sound in your jaw when you chew, open or close it?

Is your jaw suddenly clicking or making a grating sound, but everything else is fine?

What does it mean (TMJ problems?) if your only symptom is annoying sounds coming from the hinge part of your jaw when you open and close your mouth, and chew?

For this article I consulted with Donald R. Tanenbaum, DDS, MPH, a board certified TMJ and orofacial pain specialist, and author of “Doctor, Why Does My Face Still Ache.”

“TMJ problems or TMD, temporomandibular disorders, are essentially orthopedic problems involving the joint itself (the TMJ) and the associated ligaments, cartilage, tendon and muscles,” says Dr. Tanenbaum.

  • Symptoms thus can vary and include pain, noise, limited motion, soreness, joint instability and problems with bite.
  • Pain can be present continually or only when moving the jaw.

“So, if joint noise is present it suggests some type of alteration in the anatomy of the joint leading to instability, friction or interference, ultimately giving rise to noise which can be a click, pop or grating,” says Dr. Tanenbaum.

“As with all joints in the body, joint noise can be present without pain or disability.”

Perhaps you hear a grating, crunching, popping, clicking or crackling sound in your knee joint when you bend the knee, even though there’s no pain or instability.

The same process may be occurring in your jaw if it makes noise in the absence of pain, soreness or disability.

jaw joint

I recently experienced a grating noise in my jaw when opening and closing my mouth, when chewing, and when shifting the jaw horizontally, but absolutely no pain; it felt perfectly normal and moved normal.

At first it was vague, just a little clicking here and there, for a few days, not enough to get my attention.

Then next day the jaw noise got my attention because it was more pronounced, impossible to ignore when eating.

I thought that maybe aggressive mouth-opening to floss my teeth had finally caught up with me.

Then I remembered: Several days prior I had bitten down on a very hard piece of food, on the same side where the noise in my jaw was occurring.

Clicking or grating noise in the jaw “may reflect adaptive changes that have occurred over the years, but not always related to disease and certainly not always indicative of future progression,” says Dr. Tanenbaum.

“Noise in the TM joints can occur due to dryness and friction, altered shape of the articulating bones, shift in the position of the protective cartilage, muscle fatigue or foreign bodies.

“Each of these scenarios will lead to certain noise patterns and character.”

So what does it mean if there’s grating or other noise in the jaw when moving it, but no pain and no limited motion or trouble chewing?

Dr. Tanenbaum explains, that “that person likely does not have an active problem, but rather, a sign (not symptom) that suggests that the architecture of the joint has changed. Most of the time no treatment would be advised.

“Approximately 30 percent of the population has TMJ noise and a large proportion have no other symptoms.

“Grating noise in particular can represent dryness which may come from persistent clenching which forces moisture out of a joint.

“It may also be the end result of a degenerative process causing changes in the shape of the TMJ and the generation of a grinding sensation.”

Dr. Tanenbaum says that biting down on a hard piece of chocolate can cause a TMJ problem.

Guess what: The hard piece of food that I had bitten down on was a very hard block of dark chocolate, straight from the refrigerator!

And I’ll admit, I bit down multiple times to get at it, and it was uncomfortable on my bite.

I finally had to microwave the block. It took over five weeks for the noise in my jaw to disappear with no treatment other than to avoid eating things like carrots, apples and hard chocolates.

Dr. Tanenbaum’s practice focuses on facial pain, TMJ disorder and sleep-related breathing disorders. He is the past president of the American Academy of Orofacial Pain and takes a multidisciplinary approach to his patients’ care.
Lorra Garrick has been covering medical, fitness and cybersecurity topics for many years, having written thousands of articles for print magazines and websites, including as a ghostwriter. She’s also a former ACE-certified personal trainer.