If you’re experiencing facial pain, it’s important to figure out what’s causing it.
Facial pain can be felt in any part of the face, including the mouth and eyes. In some cases, the cause is obvious — like pressure from a sinus infection, for example. But in other cases, the cause can be more difficult to identify.
Most causes are harmless and will go away on their own.
In this article, I will discuss some of the common causes of facial pain, as well as treatments for each type of pain and when to see a healthcare provider.
What is Facial Pain?
Facial pain is any type of pain that is felt in the face.
This can include anything from a dull ache to a sharp, shooting pain. The pain can be constant or intermittent, and it can last for a few minutes or several hours.
There are many different types of facial pain, and the cause can vary depending on the type of pain.
There are many different causes of facial pain.
Some causes are more common than others, and in some cases, the cause is unknown.
Common causes of facial pain include:
Trigeminal neuralgia is a chronic pain condition that affects the trigeminal (or fifth) cranial nerve that is responsible for carrying sensations from the face to the brain.
The trigeminal nerves further branch out into three to perform specialized functions.
The disorder can affect any of the three nerve branches, thereby causing pain only on one side of your face.
Atypical Face Pain
Atypical face pain is a type of chronic pain that affects the nerves in your head and face.
It can cause a deep, dull ache or a sharp, shooting pain. The pain may come and go, or it may be constant.
Blood Vessel Disorders
Blood vessel disorders can cause pain in the head and face. These disorders can be caused by an injury, inflammation, or a blockage in the blood vessels.
Symptoms can include a throbbing sensation, headaches, and pain that gets worse when you bend over or lie down.
There are many different types of headaches, a number of which can also cause facial pain.
Some of these headaches include:
- Ice pick headaches cause a sharp, stabbing pain. These bouts of intense pain typically last for around 3 seconds and can affect the temples, eye sockets, and sides of the head.
- Cluster headaches usually occur suddenly and can be extremely painful. They cause a burning pain around the eyes and temples that sometimes radiates toward the back of the head. Other symptoms can include a runny nose and red, swollen eyes.
- Migraine headaches are sudden and severe and may only affect one part of the head. Around one-third of people with migraine also experience an aura before the physical pain starts. As well as visual and sensory disturbances, an aura can also cause tingling and numbness on one side of the face, body, or both.
Jaw disorders can also cause facial pain.
Some of the most common jaw disorders include:
- Temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ) affects the joints that connect the lower jaw to the skull. It can cause a clicking or popping sound when you open your mouth, as well as pain and tenderness in the jaw.
- Bruxism is a condition where you grind or clench your teeth. This can happen during the day or at night, and it can lead to headaches, earache, and pain in the jaw.
- Dental problems such as cavities, gum disease, and abscesses can all cause pain in the face and jaw.
The sinuses are the small cavities that sit behind the nose, cheekbones, and forehead.
The inflammation inside the sinuses can cause blockages that lead to a buildup of mucus.
Other symptoms of sinusitis can include:
- Pain, pressure, and tenderness in the face, particularly around the nose, cheeks, and forehead
- A stuffy or blocked nose
- Green or yellow mucus coming from the nose
- A reduced sense of smell
- Facial pain and pressure, especially around the nose and eyes
Temporomandibular Joint Dysfunction (TMJ)
The temporomandibular joint is where the jawbone, or mandible, connects to the skull.
There are two of these joints, one on each side of the head.
Some estimates suggest that more than 10 million people in the United States have a TMJ disorder.
Symptoms of a TMJ disorder can include:
- Jaw pain that may radiate to the face, head, or neck
- Stiffness in the jaw muscles
- Difficulty opening and closing the mouth, which can include jaw locking
- An uncomfortable clicking, popping, or grinding when moving the jaw
Myofascial Pain Syndrome
Myofascial pain syndrome is a chronic pain condition that affects the muscles and connective tissues.
The pain is caused by trigger points, which are tight knots of muscle that form when the muscle fibers contract.
Myofascial pain syndrome can cause a dull, aching pain that radiates from the trigger point.
Dental problems, such as an abscessed tooth or toothache, can also cause facial pain.
A dental abscess is a buildup of pus that can develop when bacteria infect the soft tissue of a tooth.
These infections can occur when tooth decay or injuries that damage teeth allow bacteria to get inside the tooth.
Abscesses can cause a throbbing pain that may radiate to the jaw, face, and neck.
Other symptoms can include:
- Tender, swollen, and red gums
- Loose teeth
- Swelling in the face
- An unpleasant smell or taste in the mouth
Facial pain can also be caused by trauma to the face, such as from a car accident or a fall. This type of trauma can cause damage to the bones, muscles, ligaments, or nerves in the face.
Symptoms of facial trauma can include:
- Tooth loss
- Vision problems
Cancers that develop in the bones, muscles, or nerves of the face can also cause facial pain.
Cancers that commonly cause facial pain include:
- Oral cancer develops in the tissues of the mouth
- Laryngeal cancer starts in the larynx, or voice box
- Neurofibrosarcoma is a rare type of cancer that starts in the nervous system
- Temporal lobe tumor is a brain tumor that affects the temporal lobe, which controls memory and language
- Trigeminal neuralgia is a condition that causes short, sharp bursts of pain in the trigeminal nerve, which runs from the brain to the face
- Acoustic neuroma is a brain tumor that affects the auditory nerve, which controls hearing and balance
To diagnose facial pain, a doctor will usually begin by asking a person about their symptoms and medical history. They may also conduct a physical examination.
To aid their diagnosis, the doctor may order imaging tests such as CT scans, MRI scans, or an x-ray.
They may also perform nerve conduction studies to determine how well the nerves in a person’s face are working.
People can usually treat mild facial pain at home.
The effectiveness of self-care treatments depends on the underlying cause, but some suggestions include:
- Wrapping an ice pack in a cloth or towel and applying it to the affected area for 10–20 minutes several times per day
- Taking OTC medication such as ibuprofen, naproxen, or acetaminophen to relieve pain
- Keeping the head elevated to promote mucus and fluid drainage from the face to relieve discomfort from sinusitis
- Gargling with salt water three times per day to help relieve dental pain
Some people may also find complementary therapies such as acupuncture, chiropractic treatment, and biofeedback beneficial for facial pain.
There is no guaranteed way to prevent all instances of facial pain, but some helpful tips include:
- Wearing a mouthguard when playing contact sports or engaging in activities that may put the face at risk of injury
- Practicing good oral hygiene by brushing and flossing regularly and visiting the dentist for routine checkups and cleanings
- Quitting smoking to help reduce the risk of gum disease
- Avoiding known triggers for migraines, such as bright lights, strong smells, and certain foods
For people with TMJ disorders, managing stress levels can help reduce flare-ups. Relaxation techniques such as yoga, meditation, and deep breathing may also be beneficial.
When to See Your Medical Provider
People with severe, worsening, or persistent facial pain should speak to a doctor. Also, seek medical attention for symptoms that may indicate an infection, such as:
- Redness or flushing
- Severe facial or dental pain
- Unexplained fatigue
How K Health Can Help
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Frequently Asked Questions
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.
K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.
TMD (Temporomandibular Disorders). (2022.)
Trigeminal Neuralgia. (2021.)
Bruxism: A Literature Review. (2010.)
Dental Abscess. (2021.)