Broken Jaw: What To Do Next?
Our jaws play an important role in helping us eat, speak and breathe. Hence, any form of trauma or damage to the jaw can inhibit these important functions. There are many conditions that can cause jaw pain, with one of the most common being a broken jaw.
What Is A Broken Jaw?
A broken jaw is an injury that occurs on the joints that connect your lower jaw to the skull. The injury can occur on one or both joints, which are known as temporomandibular joint (TMJ). The injury can cause the TMJ to crack, break or become dislocated or unhinged from the skull.
According to Harvard health publications, a broken jaw is the third most common type of facial fracture after the nose and cheekbones (1). It can create problems with eating and breathing, which calls for immediate medical attention to minimise complications as well as promote healing.
Causes Of A Broken Jaw
One of the causes of a broken jaw is trauma to the face. The jaw is the largest and the main bone of the lower part of the face, making it more susceptible to trauma. It extends from your chin to the back of your ears. Some of the most common types of injury that cause fractures, broken or dislocated jaw include;
- Sports injuries
- Physical assault
- Vehicle accident
- Workplace or industrial accidents
- Accidental falls
Symptoms Of A Broken Jaw
A broken jaw can cause your entire face to swell, making your jaw feel stiff and painful.
Sometimes, bleeding from the mouth can occur after an accident or assault.
The blood can block your airways, causing you to gag or have difficulty breathing.
Difficulty eating and speaking
You may experience excruciating pain and tenderness when chewing or speaking.
Limited jaw movement
If the fracture is severe, you may even experience limited ability to move your jaw or unable to move it at all. You might not be able to get your teeth to meet in their normal position.
Bruising and numbness
This is also another common symptom that you can experience if your jaw is broken or fractured.
Sudden facial abnormalities
Severe breaking of the bone may cause other abnormalities with the shape of your face. You may notice that your face or jaw has a lumpy appearance.
The impact of the injury can also lead to loosened or lost teeth.
Difference between a broken and dislocated jaw
A jaw dislocation occurs when the mandible moves out of its natural alignment, where the jaw and skull connect (2).
A broken jaw, on the other hand, refers to a fracture on the jawbone.
Diagnosing A Broken Or Fractured Jaw
To diagnose a broken or fractured jaw, your doctor or oral surgery dentist will need to do a physical examination, followed by the relevant x-rays.
The physical exam
The doctor/oral surgery dentist will inspect your face for bruising, swelling and any other apparent deformation. They will also inspect your TMJ joint and evaluate if there is any vascular or nerve trauma. After the external exam, they will check your mouth for teeth alignment, jaw stability, and strength.
Your doctor may order a panoramic x-ray of your entire jaw. If the x-ray comes out negative, they may conduct a CT scan, especially if they think you have a broken jaw.
Broken Jaw Treatment and Surgery
If you experience any of the above symptoms, it is crucial that you are checked by a doctor or an oral surgery dentist. Make sure to apply ice on the jaw to control the swelling while on your way to see the doctor.
Treating a broken jaw
Some people may experience jaw pain but don’t have a broken or fractured jaw. In this case, the doctor may prescribe pain medication, a soft diet and follow up checkups.
If your pain is as a result of a fracture, you will require further evaluation.
For minor fractures or dislocations, your doctor may simply immobilize your jaw from moving by wrapping a bandage around your head. This will stop the mouth from opening, allowing the jaw time to heal. Anti-inflammatory medications are then prescribed to reduce pain and swelling.
Wiring your jaw shut
Wiring of the upper and lower jaw bone is recommended for severely broken jaws. The broken or dislocated jaw is wired shut during recovery. This involves placing wires on your top and bottom teeth and using elastic bands that connect the wires to keep your jaw shut and your bite in the correct position to allow healing.
Also as a jaw fracture is considered an open fracture, you will be treated with antibiotics and a tetanus shot.
Your jaw will remain wired for 6 to 8 weeks to allow for a full recovery.
Soft diet for a broken jaw
During recovery, you will be instructed to follow a strict soft diet. During this period, you will need to avoid foods that are crunchy or chewy, even if you have a minor fracture or dislocation. These foods can cause strain and pain in your jaw, delaying healing.
Some of the recommended soft foods that you can eat include:
- Canned fruits
- Well cooked pasta
- Canned meat
- Well cooked rice
In case of a wired jaw, this will require an even more drastic dietary change because you will not be able to open and close your mouth. Hence, you will get your daily dose of minerals and vitamins through a straw. Pureed foods with whole milk are a great way to add calories to your diet. So puree your fruits, veggies, and well-cooked meats to give you the necessary protein and other nutrients required to stay healthy.
Broken Jaw Follow-up Appointments
Since most jaw fractures call for surgery, a follow up with a surgeon is essential. Also, make sure to follow all diet recommendations and take your antibiotics as instructed.
Risk Factors Of A Broken Jaw And Prevention
Given that most broken jaws are caused by assaults, falls and motor vehicle or sports accidents, here are a few prevention measures:
- Avoid confrontations
- Drive safely and always use a seat belt and shoulder harness even if your car is equipped with airbags.
- Make sure to always wear protective devices in sporting activities. These include headgear and mouth guard for protection against jaw fractures. For parents, do not allow your child to participate in amateur boxing. The American Academy for Paediatrics opposes this sport for young people (3).
Broken Jaw Prognosis
The prognosis for most people with a broken or fractured jaw is quite promising. Dislocation and non-surgical fractures take 4 to 8 weeks to heal. Recovery from a surgical fracture can take up to several months. However, the jaw heals successfully with little to no long term effects. However, you may experience recurring joint pain after your injury. This condition is known as a temporomandibular joint disorder.
Broken Jaw Complications
After a jaw bone fracture, most patients usually have temporary chewing and talking problems. However, these complications fade away over time, usually within days or weeks.
Some patients, however, may get immediate complications such as bleeding, aspiration of food, airway blocking, or fluid or blood getting into the lungs, which can be life-threatening. Other people may develop misaligned teeth, especially if the treatment is delayed or poorly done. Poor healing may also cause TMJ dislocation.
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