Just this week I treated two patients who unfortunately chose to eat foods that not only are known to often cause fractured teeth but also can at the same time create significant jaw injuries. Now, a particular food can’t actually “break” your jaw, but an injury in the jaw joint (TMJ) can certainly feel like it.
To start the conversation, picture this: the jaw joints (or “hinges”) and the attached ligaments allow you to open and close your mouth. The attached muscles and tendons provide the power for this movement. So, if you think about the jaw as an orthopedic system (just like the knee) it is subject to sprains, strains, ligament stretch, slipped cartilage and inflammation that at times can be severe. When you bite into or munch repetitively on hard or large food substances, you can cause significant painful damage to your delicate jaw joints.
Here are the top offenders:
In New York City the unquestionable leading offender is the bagel. But it’s not the hot steamy variety that has just come out of the oven or the fake-out options in the grocery store such as Lender’s Bagels. The problems come from the overly-toasted, crisp beauties that are consumed daily with cream cheese or stacked high with tomatoes, onions and favorite delicacies and eaten like a sandwich.
The most treacherous situation occurs when a college student has no choice but to grab a 3-day old, shiny bagel wrapped in cellophane and then tries to eat it as he or she runs between classes. Inevitably, I find myself providing care to students returning for the Thanksgiving or Christmas break. And this week is no exception.
Next in line are those irresistible biscotti cookies that land on your table after overindulging at your favorite Italian restaurant. The coffee or tea is on the table for dunking, but what are the chances that you will dunk the biscotti before sinking your teeth into one of those “jaw crackers?” You first encounter firmness but that doesn’t deter you from trying to break off a piece with your front teeth. With each successive effort to win the battle, you are one step closer to traumatized and sprained TMJs.
For those who have been on the cusp of this occurrence you know exactly what I am talking about. For those of you have met your match and subsequently suffered with jaw pain, limited jaw motion or joint noise, I suspect you have since become dunkers.
3. Sourdough Pretzels
Not far behind biscotti is a snacking favorite, the infamous Sourdough Pretzel. While it’s OK to eat just one or two, something compels most of us to finish the entire bag even though our jaws begin to rebel after 10 minutes. The end results are tired jaw muscles, a headache in the temples, or a painful TMJ that prevents you from eating a normal diet for a few weeks.
Chocolate delicacies are also on the Jaw Breakers list. How many of you have bitten into a piece of chocolate that you anticipated would be soft? Unfortunately by the time your brain realizes that you are up against a piece of concrete your jaw muscles have contracted with such force that your TMJs are pushed beyond their limit. The end result has been reported as “I heard an explosion in my jaw joint and since then I can’t open my mouth or bring my teeth together properly!”
And don’t forget about the frozen Snickers and Milky Way bars that have been left in the freezer for a few months. One wrong decision here may become a midnight snack you would like to forget.
Last but not least is that oversized burger on a bun or Panini sandwich. Though soft in consistency, the need to open your mouth like an alligator is all it may take to end up reaching for Advil to ease the sharp pain radiating into your ear or in severe cases, spending the next few hours in the emergency room with your jaw stuck in an open position.
6. Candy-Covered Apples
These ruby colored beauties on a stick are particularly dangerous because they look so delicious. Almost impossible to easily bit into, they have caused jaw problems for years, particularly around Halloween.
Try to exercise some good judgment and restraint when contemplating your next bite. This is particularly true for women whose joint ligaments are more vulnerable to stretch and whose muscles are more prone to fatigue. If you sense you are pushing your luck, you are probably right!
Seek care if you have suffered the consequence of an overzealous bite, particularly if several weeks have passed and you’re still suffering.