Ask the Dentist: Jaw pain can sometimes indicate heart attack or cardiac problems

Dentist Lucy Stock, of Gentle Dental Care, Belfast,

In a heart attack, your brain can sometimes interpret nerve signals as pain from your jaw when it is actually coming from your heart
Lucy Stock

WHEN is jaw pain, not jaw pain? When it’s a heart attack, which is no joke. Heart attacks don’t always force people to clutch their heart or left arm and fall to the floor. Symptoms of a potentially deadly episode can vary and even cause pain in unexpected parts of the body.

Jaw pain due to a heart attack is a rare symptom of trouble brewing. It’s not surprising that this jaw pain is often confused with trouble in the mouth. So why do heart problems cause the jaw to become painful?

Your jaw may hurt with a heart attack because the nerves that detect pain from your heart return to the same general area in your spinal cord as the nerves that sense pain in your jaw. The signals from the spinal cord then travel to the brain. As a result, your brain may interpret the nerve signal as pain from your jaw when it is actually coming from your heart. This is called “referred pain”.

Most jaw pain is caused by problems with the teeth, facial muscles, facial nerves and jaw bones; in other words something that's happening within the head.

The trick is to distinguish between “simple” jaw pain and heart jaw pain. This is done by looking carefully at the things that relieve the discomfort, or increase it.

For example, if you hold firmly below your chin and try to open or chewing makes the pain worse, then it’s not the heart. If your dentist examines you and can find nothing wrong in your mouth or on the X-rays then suspicion may mount that the heart is the culprit.

Another way of distinguishing between the two causes is to see if exercise brings on the jaw pain and then goes away at rest. Again, this is more likely to do with the heart.

It cannot be emphasised enough that a heart attack can have symptoms other than chest pain and these symptoms should be checked immediately. The classic example is the patient with lower dentures that is having “tooth pain” while walking after heavy meals. This is, indeed, cardiac. It is better to be safe than sorry when dealing with pain. Trust your gut and seek medical attention if you are concerned.

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