A fractured or broken jaw is one of the most common facial injuries. The jawbone or mandible is one of the 22 bones in the human skull and is the only movable one. It houses the lower teeth and is vital for chewing food, speaking, and forming facial expressions. Fractured jaws are painful and often occur in two places simultaneously. Treatment depends on the severity and location of the jaw fracture.
Most jaw fractures come from trauma to the face, such as that experienced during a vehicle collision or assault. People who take part in sports such as boxing commonly sustain injuries to the jaw. Fractures can also occur when one fails to break a fall with the hands. Young men between the ages of 20-29 are the most likely group to fracture their jaws. Occasionally, a fractured jaw may be due to certain cancers and infections, rather than trauma.
The most common symptom of a fractured jaw is pain. People may feel that their jaws are misaligned and that their teeth no longer fit together properly. Many people will be unable to open their jaws properly and may have problems eating and speaking. Changes in sensation or numbness in the lips or chin are also common. This occurs if there is damage to the nerve in the jaw. There may be bleeding inside the mouth and swelling or bruising beneath the tongue. Some people will be unable to stop themselves from drooling.
When to Seek Help
Anybody who has experienced trauma to their jaw and feels severe pain, misalignment of the teeth, bleeding, swelling, or difficulty speaking and eating, should seek medical care as soon as possible. The emergency room is preferable to a doctor’s office because medical practitioners are likely to require tests, investigations, and treatments unavailable outside the hospital.
A doctor will examine the jaw to see if there are any obvious signs of a fracture, such as swelling or bleeding. She may check the alignment of the patient’s teeth and whether the jaw moves normally. A panoramic x-ray can diagnose a fractured jaw. If the x-ray doesn’t show anything but the doctor still suspects a fracture, the doctor may order a CT scan of the jaw.
Treatment of Stable Jaw Fractures
Depending on the cause of the fracture, patients may require tetanus shots. Over-the-counter painkillers can help alleviate pain. Wiring the teeth of the upper and lower jaw together can prevent further damage, and is usually carried out by a surgeon Often, people with broken jaws can eat only pureed food until the fractures heal. For this reason, many people see a dietician ensure they don’t become malnourished during recovery.
If the jaw fracture is unstable, surgery can reset the jaw in its proper position. This usually involves screwing metal plates over the fractured region to hold it in place while the fracture heals. Where possible, the surgeon will ensure the mandible is mobile quite quickly after surgery. This allows the person to eat and speak normally as soon as possible.
Treating Fractures Caused by Infection
If an infection is the cause of the fracture, a surgeon will remove the infected tooth or tissue. Doctors may prescribe antibiotics to treat the infection. A medical practitioner will also drain any fluid that accumulates around the jaw bone. The jaw requires immobilization for the fracture to heal. This will be done using wiring or surgery depending on the stability of the fracture.
Fractured Jaw vs. Dislocated Jaw
A fractured jaw and a dislocated jaw have very similar symptoms. For this reason, it can be difficult to determine whether the jaw is broken or dislocated. A fractured jaw is more likely to cause bleeding, loose teeth, and swelling or numbness in the affected area. A dislocated jaw is more likely to protrude abnormally and affect speech. People with a dislocated jaw are often unable to close their mouth. Often, the only way to differentiate between a fracture and a dislocation is to take x-rays or carry out a CT scan.
Fractured jaws do not often cause serious complications. However, the airway may become compromised if the swelling is severe, which can cause problems with breathing. This is an emergency and requires prompt treatment. Until one can see a doctor, it is best to support the jaw to try and keep the airway open. If there are significant cuts within the mouth, a fractured jaw can also lead to considerable blood loss. Occasionally, there may be whole sections of displaced bone within the jaw. This requires surgery to correct.
Avoiding a jaw fracture is not always possible, as they are often the result of unforeseeable accidents. However, wearing a seat belt while in vehicles and developing safe driving habits can help prevent jaw fractures. Avoiding sports and hobbies where trauma to the face is likely — or wearing proper protective gear — can also prevent jaw injuries. Good oral hygiene and regular dental checkups will help prevent infections or ensure they are quickly identified and treated.