Does lockjaw go away?

More often than not, lockjaw is temporary, but if it becomes a long-term or permanent condition, it can be life-threatening. Lockjaw can interfere with the ability to eat, speak, and clean the teeth and oral cavity, and it might even affect the ability to swallow or change the appearance of the face. The technical term for lockjaw is trismus, and the condition is characterized by a limited ability to open the jaws. When the muscles that support the jaw and facilitate its movement become inflamed or spastic, these muscles can grow rigid and prevent the jaw joints from moving. This can happen for a few reasons, and the severity of lockjaw is determined, in large part, by its cause. If you’re concerned about whether lockjaw will go away, a clinical diagnosis is the first step in learning what to expect and how to manage the symptoms of lockjaw while they last, and it’s also the first step in treating lockjaw that’s caused by underlying conditions, like tetanus. While not common, one of the most well-known causes of lockjaw is tetanus.

Tetanus is an infection caused by anaerobic bacteria, called Clostridium tetani, that is found in dust, soil, and animal and human waste that enters the body via open sores or puncture wounds. Once the C. tetani bacteria has entered the body, which happens most often when a person steps on a rusty or contaminated nail or other sharp object, its spores germinate in the wound in which it lives, releasing a toxin that affects the motor neurons, which are the nerve cells that control muscle movements. These motor neurons go into overdrive and hold the muscles in an unnaturally rigid state of constant spasm. These spasms can last a few seconds or several minutes and may be exacerbated by external stimuli like touch. Initially, tetanus tends to appear near the wounded or infected area, but it can spread to other areas. The first symptom of tetanus is often lockjaw accompanied by stiffness in the muscles in the face and neck. Regular vaccination is an effective way to prevent tetanus, even after it may have been introduced into the body, and the condition is treated with antibiotics and tetanus immunoglobulin. If tetanus goes untreated, the motor neurons can sustain long-term damage and may require many weeks of intensive therapy to recover.

Other possible causes of lockjaw include infections or diseases that affect the inner ear, mouth, jaw, or throat, like mumps, tonsillitis, injury or trauma to the jaw, and abscesses. Certain medical conditions that increase inflammation may also contribute to lockjaw. These medical conditions can include pericoronitis, which is inflammation in the tissues surrounding a tooth; arthritis in the jaw; certain autoimmune diseases, like scleroderma; or head and neck cancers and their associated treatments. Certain medications can impede the function of motor neurons and lead to lockjaw, and dental surgeries can increase tension in the jaw and lead to lockjaw if the jaw is held wide open for a prolonged period during the surgical procedure. Of course, lockjaw should not be ignored, as it can lead to malnutrition and diminished oral hygiene and interfere with quality of life and may be associated with more severe medical conditions that require treatment. When symptoms of lockjaw are severe, they could even interfere with a person’s ability to swallow or breathe comfortably and become life-threatening, but early intervention can make a big difference in resolving the issue and returning the patient’s jaw to health.

Unlock a tense jaw