Clicking or Popping the Jaw with Neck Pain and Headaches?

Posted in Head Pain Disorders Neck Pain Disorders on Aug 31, 2020

What does a clicking or popping the jaw mean?

A clicking jaw or a popping jaw is actually a very common problem.

Unfortunately, because it is not a formal medical diagnosis, it is not something where you can google “clicking jaw specialist.” The closest person that many people think of as a clicking jaw specialist would be a dentist, an ENT, or maybe a physiotherapist.

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What many people do not realise is that the clicking of popping jaw may actually be related to a problem in the upper neck, in which case they need to see an upper cervical specific chiropractor.


Why does clicking or popping the jaw happens?

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So why does clicking or popping in the jaw happen in the first place? And what is the link to your neck?

Clicking or popping the jaw occurs when there is entrapment of the meniscoidal tissue inside of the temporomandibular joint (TMJ). Your TMJ contains a slip of cartilage similar to the cartilage in your knee, except much thinner. Its purpose is to allow your jaw to open and close smoothly without causing bone-on-bone rubbing.

However, if the alignment of your jaw shifts even slightly off centre (less than one millimetre), it can cause this cartilage to click as the joint surfaces move across it. The result is a clicking or popping sound that occurs when you open or close your mouth.


If so, the question now is, “What can cause my jaw to misalign?

Well, one simple possibility is that you were chewing something hard on one side, like a frozen almond  … so hard that you couldn’t quite bite through it, and as a result you caused your own jaw to misalign.

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The thing about it is that you may not have even experienced jaw pain at the moment it happened! However, if the shift occurs and accumulates like a snowball rolling down the hill, it can eventually lead to a variety of TMJ dysfunction or TMD symptoms:

  • Grinding or clenching
  • Difficulty chewing
  • Lockjaw (i.e., where your jaw gets locked open or gets locked closed)
  • Pain, headaches or migraines
  • Tooth pain and earaches
  • And many more

However, a jaw problem does not always originate from the TMJ itself. Many times, the underlying issue may instead be related to the upper neck.


How can the upper neck cause a clicking jaw or popping jaw?

What causes a muscle problem?

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It’s a simple enough question, but one that many people never pause to consider. When people experience problems such as tight muscles, the question is, “Why?” Unless, there is a muscle tear or similar damage, muscles do not tighten for no reason. So, what do you suppose causes muscles to tighten in the first place?

In other words, what is the CONTROL system that causes muscles to tighten or to relax?

The answer is your nerve system. Your nerves are the electrical conductors for messages between your brain and body. It is your nerves - not your muscles - that control tightness in your body. 

Therefore, if you experience muscle problems with your jaw, it is very likely that it is because there is some underlying type of neurological imbalance.

No, it does not mean a brain tumor or infection. However, if something is interfering with the normal function of your nerve system and the transmission of those messages between your brain and body, that ultimately can cause significant problems including TMJ problems.

What many people including medical and dental specialists often forget is that there is an important relationship between the alignment of the TMJ, the C1 (atlas) and the C2 (axis) vertebrae. So, what is that relationship?

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Foremost, there is a structural relationship. First, the shape of the base of the skull (the occipital condyles) and the shape of the jaw joints (mandibular condyles) are the same.

Second, the orientation of the C2 vertebra and opening at the base of the skull (the foramen magnum) is 90o perpendicular to the axis of the TMJ. 

In brief, the structure and alignment of the upper neck affect the alignment and motion of the TMJ and visa versa.

In addition, there is an important neurological connection between your TMJ and your upper neck.

Your chewing muscles are ALL controlled by branches of the Trigeminal Nerve (Cranial Nerve #5). The neurological processing centre that receives the sensory information from these muscles descends from your brainstem down to the level of C2, C3, and maybe even C4 in your neck.

Your C1 and C2 vertebrae actually anchor to your spinal cord at these exact same levels! Therefore, if either of these vertebrae misaligns, it is possible for that force to disrupt the processing of these signals in your central nervous system.

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So if the upper processing centres of your brain receive faulty information, they will engage a reflexive protective response: i.e., causing your muscles to tighten.

So, as you now see, if there is a problem with your upper neck, it can affect the function of your jaw muscles and ultimately lead to a clicking or popping jaw.


What can you do about a clicking or popping jaw?

Have you seen an upper cervical SPECIFIC chiropractor for your TMJ condition?

Researchers and TMJ specialists have long known about the intimate relationship between your jaw alignment and neck alignment. However, it is one that the average person has never heard about.

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Maybe you have heard about a TMJ physiotherapist, who is an important allied health professional also capable of helping people with clicking jaws.

A TMJ physiotherapist typically performs massage, dry needling or exercises focused on improving the motion of your jaw. And they are able to help lots of people!

Alas, if there was any 100% cure for any condition, everyone would be doing it with 100% results.

So, for those people who have tried other therapies but not experienced the results, the expectations, sometimes the problem is not that they are doing the wrong thing, just that they are doing it in the wrong order.

Think about it: if your brain continuously tells your jaw muscles to tighten, you can do all the exercises, but the problem will keep going back.

However, if you address the UNDERLYING CAUSE that is affecting the nerves to your jaw, THEN your exercises should work the way that they are supposed to.

For this reason, one of the most important allied health professionals that a person experiencing a clicking or popping jaw can see if an upper cervical specific chiropractor.

Unlike a general chiropractor, an upper cervical specific chiropractor has completed advanced study in the relationship between your upper neck (the atlas and axis vertebra), your nerve system, and the TMJ. In addition, an upper cervical specific chiropractor does NOT use spinal manipulation, neck twisting, or cracking at all.

If you have now heard of an “upper cervical chiropractor” before, it is not surprising. There are fewer than 20 upper cervical specific chiropractors in all Australia at the time of this writing. That’s less than 1% of all chiropractic doctors in Australia.

Upper cervical care is a special division of chiropractic developed and researched in the USA with over 80 years of clinical research and positive outcomes supporting it.

Although it is still rare in Australia, most of the major cities have at least one upper cervical specific chiropractor to serve the greater communities who need it.


How do I know if my atlas (C1) might be causing my clicking or popping jaw?

Have you seen an upper cervical specific chiropractor for your TMJ condition?

Especially if you experience any of the other commonly associated symptoms, your TMJ condition may well be related to your neck:

  • headaches
  • migraines
  • neck pain
  • pain or tenderness in the neck, shoulder and around the ear
  • tinnitus
  • dizziness
  • vertigo
  • fibromyalgia

The first thing that an upper cervical chiropractic doctor will do is perform a  series of physical and neurological tests to determine the type of condition you may have and if your clicking or popping jaw is related to your neck.

If the answer is no, your upper cervical chiropractic doctor will refer you to the appropriate TMJ specialist. However, if the answer is yes, then your chiropractic doctor will take a series of precise x-ray images that illustrate the 3D structure and alignment of your neck.

Unlike standard x-rays, these views are customised just for your unique bone structure. So not only are people different on the outside, but they are also different on the inside. These structural differences are often the key difference.

Once your upper cervical chiropractic doctor identifies the nature of your condition, they will make a recommendation for care. Because many clicking or popping jaw conditions have actually been around for a long time, it usually isn’t an instant fix (although we would prefer to be wrong about this one).

It is also important to understand that an upper cervical chiropractic doctor may not be treating you TMJ condition directly because that would just be treating the symptoms and not addressing the underlying cause. If the underlying cause is the result of an upper neck misalignment, the purpose of care is to allow your body to do what it is designed to do: heal itself naturally!


TMJ chiropractor Brisbane

At Atlas Health located in North Lakes (north Brisbane), our purpose is to help people experiencing difficult conditions of the head neck, and face - often people who have been “everywhere else, but nothing has helped” - to experience healing that they know is possible so that they can enjoy the quality of life that they desire most.

Dr. Jeffrey Hannah is our principal upper cervical chiropractic doctor. With over 13 years of experience, he is an advanced certified Blair upper cervical practitioner, international lecturer, author, and recognised leader in the field of upper cervical specific chiropractic.

To find out if we may be able to help you with your clicking or popping jaw, we are happy to offer a 15-minute complimentary over-the-phone consultation with Dr. Hannah to ask any questions you might have and so that you can decide if care may be right for you.

Simply click the Contact Us, or give us a ring direct at our main office: 07 3188 9329.

It would be our privilege and honor to assist you.


Atlas Health Australia - “Hope, healing, and wellbeing from above-down, inside-out.”



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