The term “jaw fracture” usually refers to fracture of the lower jaw (mandible). A fractured jaw causes pain and usually changes the way the teeth fit together. Often, the mouth cannot be opened wide, or it shifts to one side when opening or closing.
Fractures of the upper jaw (maxilla) are usually considered facial fractures. These may cause double vision (because the muscles of the eye attach nearby), numbness in the skin below the eye (because of injuries to nerves), or an irregularity in the cheekbone that can be felt when running a finger along it.
Any injury forceful enough to fracture the jaw may also injure the spine in the neck or cause a concussion or bleeding within the skull. Jaw fractures cause swelling, which rarely becomes severe enough to block the airway. Sometimes a fracture extends through a tooth or its socket (called an open fracture), creating an opening into the mouth that can allow oral bacteria to infect the jaw bone.
If people suspect their jaw is fractured, they should hold the jaw still with the teeth together. Emergency personnel may wrap a bandage under the jaw and over the top of the head several times (Barton's bandage). When wrapping the bandage, people must be careful not to cut off breathing.
At the hospital, neck x-rays are often taken to rule out spinal damage.
The upper and lower jaws may be wired together for up to 6 weeks to allow the bone to heal. During this time, people are only able to drink liquids through a straw. Alternatively, many jaw fractures can be repaired surgically with a plate (a piece of metal that is screwed into the bone on each side of the fracture). If a plate is used, the jaws are immobilized for only a few days, after which people should eat only soft foods for several weeks. In children, some jaw fractures are not immobilized. Instead, initial treatment allows restricted motion, and normal activity resumes in a few weeks. Antibiotics are usually given to people with an open fracture.
Last full review/revision December 2012 by David F. Murchison, DDS, MMS