Can Wisdom Teeth Cause Jaw Popping?

Written & Reviewed by Dr David Chen

It is physically impossible for the wisdom teeth to cause jaw popping because that’s the wrong etiology for it. Popping of the jaw is a result of anterior disc displacement with reduction, which is a type of internal derangement of the TMJ. In other words it is a TMJ disorder and wisdom teeth are not a part of the TMJ complex. That means there is no relation between the two whatsoever.

lateral pterygoid muscle

We will break it all down for you and show you why your jaw clicking has nothing to do with those pesky third molars.

Why is my jaw popping?

The presence of your wisdom teeth has no correlation with your jaw popping because it actually stems from a TMJ disorder, internal derangement. That is an abnormal relationship among the components within the TMJ capsule. More specifically and commonly, it is a result of anterior disc displacement with reduction (ADDWR).

Studies have shown that jaw clicking or popping have consistently shown ADDWR. In fact the clicking can even be used as an indicator of anteriorly displaced discs.

disc displacement anterior to posterior
Credit: K Ikeda and A Kawamura

The reason you hear a popping sound is due to the fact that the articular disc has been displaced anterior to where they normally should be. In a healthy TMJ, the disc sits superior to the mandibular condyle and moves with it as the jaw opens and closes. However in ADDWR, the condyle has to glide over the disc upon mouth opening and that is when the jaw pop occurs.

Here is a video for visual aid in how the clicking sound occurs:

The jaw popping sound is a result of the condyle having to slide over the posterior portion of the disc. That is forced to happen if the disc gets displaced anterior to the condylar head.

In a healthy TMJ with no internal derangement, the disc is positioned above the condyle and moves with it. Since it glides with it for all of the movements, there is no clicking or popping at all.

Wisdom teeth have no effect on TMJ issues

Hopefully you now understand that the popping noise is from the jaw opening and having to glide over the articular disc. It is 100% a problem with your temporomandibular joint. That means the wisdom teeth have no overbearing effect on the jaw popping at all because it is not associated with the TMJ.

TMJ disorder overview

The TMJ involves many structures:

  • TMJ muscles – lateral pterygoid, medial pterygoid, temporalis, masseter
  • Mandibular fossa of the temporal bone
  • Condylar head of mandible
  • Articular disc

Fortunately or unfortunately for you, the third molars are not part of that equation.

  • The upper wisdom teeth are located on the maxilla which is not one of the bones that are associated with the TMJ.
  • The lower wisdom teeth are located in the body of the mandible which is at the opposite end from the condyle.

The wisdom teeth are not even near where the jaw popping is located so it is physically impossible for them to have an effect on it.

Can wisdom teeth cause other TMJ symptoms?

They may not cause jaw clicking or jaw popping but other TMJ symptoms are possible such as jaw pain or locked jaw (trismus).

Jaw pain from third molars

Your wisdom teeth can often cause diffuse pain in your jaw that is a lot more generalized than localized. This is more common in third molars that are impacted rather than fully erupted ones.

Patients are typically able to locate the pain more readily when the tooth is fully erupted. However for the ones that are still stuck in the bone or gums, they may not be able to figure out where the source of the pain is.

What makes it worse is that you can sometimes get “referred pain” from the impacted teeth. The impacted upper wisdom teeth can sometimes cause you to feel pain up to your eye or even to the back of your head. The impacted lower wisdom teeth can refer pain to your ear or even down your neck.

What typically happens is that these patients come in and they have pain everywhere. They can’t really pinpoint exactly where it is coming from aside from that fact that it is “jaw pain”. Sometimes they may point to random teeth and the dentist will test them but find nothing out of the ordinary.

Nonetheless, due to the process of elimination… it must be the impacted wisdom teeth. That usually ends up being true because those are literally the only teeth that your dentist can’t test because they’re still stuck in the jaw bone.

Locked jaw from third molars

Wisdom teeth can become severely inflamed or infected from time to time, especially if they are partially or fully impacted. Once they do swell up it is always accompanied by severe pain. Sometimes the swelling can get so bad that it can induce lock jaw where you’re not able to open your mouth all the way.

Having a locked jaw is similar to a TMJ disorder (TMD) called disc displacement without reduction. In that condition, you’re not able to open your jaw all the way or only in a very limited motion.

That condition is very similar to the one from having severely inflamed wisdom teeth. However their causes are completely different because one is a joint problem while the other one is a tooth problem.

Their treatments also differ because for the wisdom teeth induced locked jaw, it can be permanently cured by simply removing the wisdom teeth along with taking antibiotics. Although if you try to remove the wisdom teeth for locked jaw from TMD, there will be zero alleviation of the symptoms. The locked jaw will remain despite getting the impacted teeth out!

That is why it is important to identify what is the exact cause for all of your symptoms, hence why proper diagnosis is key to providing the correct treatment.

What should you do if you have jaw popping?

If your jaw is popping, the first thing you should suspect is not your wisdom teeth. You should seek out a dentist who specializes in treating temporomandibular joint disorders.

That popping sound is most likely due to the fact that your articular disc has been displaced anteriorly but it is reducing on its own. Most of the time, non-surgical treatment will suffice such as patient education, physical therapy, and occlusal splint fabrication.

Nonetheless, it is still not a bad idea to have your wisdom teeth removed since you don’t chew with them and they’re prone to infections. If you already have them removed, it eliminates them as suspects whenever you have inexplicable jaw pain!


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