Every time you eat something, you have your mandibular nerve to thank.
While you may never have heard of the mandibular nerve, it’s one of the most important nerves for the functions of your mouth. It helps you feel sensations, including temperature and pain. It even assists with the process of taste. And without it, you wouldn’t be able to chew.
Your mandibular nerve also helps you with other important functions besides eating. Your ability to speak, and even breathe, relies in part on this nerve.
How does this nerve work, why is it so important, and how can you tell if something’s wrong with it? Understanding this nerve can help you understand any pain or discomfort you experience around your mouth. Here’s what you need to know!
What Is the Mandibular Nerve?
The mandibular nerve is a major nerve in your mouth and lower facial area. It has its name because it’s found along your mandible (or lower jaw).
A complicated web of nerves that branch and split throughout your body make up your nervous system. Your mandibular nerve actually comes from a split in a cranial nerve called the trigeminal nerve. The trigeminal nerve splits into three nerves, with the mandibular as the largest.
The nerve itself has nine different branches. These branches allow it to play an important role in the movement and sensation of your mouth and face.
Anything you sense on the lower third of your face comes from the mandibular nerve. This nerve involves both motor and sensory functions, so it helps you both move and feel the lower part of your face. Of the three trigeminal nerve branches, only the mandibular nerve governs both motion and sensation.
What Does the Mandibular Nerve Do?
The primary motion-related task of this nerve involves chewing. Without this nerve, you couldn’t do the unique motion that allows you to eat. The nerve helps sync up a number of different facial muscles to achieve this. It also assists in the motion of speaking and breathing through your mouth.
Chewing without sensation would feel strange, maybe even dangerous. Luckily, the mandibular nerve also transmits senses, including the sense of touch and temperature, from the mouth area. Specifically, this nerve carries the information from your jaw and chin, plus your lower lip, teeth, and gums.
For example, if you eat something too hot that burns the bottom part of your mouth, you’ll feel a sensation of heat and pain because of your mandibular nerve.
Interestingly, this nerve also carries sensation from the back of your tongue, where much of the experience of taste comes from. The mandibular nerve doesn’t actually provide you with the sensation of taste. But it does play a valuable role in taste by transmitting that information.
Mandibular Nerve Issues
Many different issues can involve or affect the mandibular nerve, with a variety of different causes.
Let’s take a look at some of the most common issues involving the mandibular nerve, and how to treat each one.
Temporomandibular joint disorders
Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorders involve the hinged joint between your skull and your jaw. Although they don’t necessarily involve the mandibular nerve directly, the mandibular nerve causes you to feel pain when you have these disorders.
With a TMJ disorder, you might feel pain in the muscles or joints of your jaw. You might notice the pain when you eat, speak, or open your mouth.
The pain might even center itself around one or both ears since your jaw joints are near your ears. The joint may sometimes lock up, making it hard to open your mouth.
Because of your mandibular nerve, you’ll feel the pain of a TMJ disorder. However, it’s often hard to diagnose the cause of the pain. It might involve an injury, or a different factor, like arthritis.
But it’s always important to seek out a doctor if you feel this kind of mandibular nerve pain. There are treatments available and ways to ease the pain.
This condition involves the trigeminal nerve and can include the mandibular nerve branch. Remember, the mandibular nerve is the largest branch of the trigeminal nerve.
When you have trigeminal jneuralgia, you have chronic pain in this facial nerve. The pain can become incredibly severe in this condition. You might feel intense pain even with minor activities, like eating or brushing your teeth.
This painful condition can happen as a result of a nerve injury. A nerve that’s damaged, or pinched or pressed where it shouldn’t be, can cause a surprising amount of pain. If the pain happens in the lower part of your face, the mandibular nerve is involved.
Some people experience the pain in short, intense bursts. For others, it’s a constant painful sensation, or long periods of pain followed by respites. The pain might seem triggered by a certain action, or it might happen at all times with no apparent cause.
However, the good news is that medical professionals can treat trigeminal neuralgia. When left untreated, this condition can severely, negatively affect your quality of life. If you have frequent or chronic pain in your face, you should definitely seek medical attention before it gets worse.
While many different things can cause trigeminal neuralgia, the most common causes include blood vessels. If a blood vessel contacts a nerve where it shouldn't, the pressure can cause serious pain.
Other things that can contribute to trigeminal neuralgia:
- Diseases that damage the nerve sheath
If you don’t treat this issue, the pain often gets worse, so don’t hesitate to seek out treatment.
Wisdom teeth removal complications
If you get your lower wisdom teeth removed, you might experience a rare complication that affects your mandibular nerve.
Your mandibular nerve can sometimes run close to your lower wisdom teeth. When those wisdom teeth get removed, the nerve can sometimes get bruised or otherwise damaged in the process. That can result in pain, numbness, or tingling after the procedure.
Most of the time, these symptoms resolve themselves in a matter of months. It’s actually fairly common to have a bit of numbness or tingling after wisdom tooth removal. However, rarely, the symptoms can persist or get more severe.
At worst, you could find yourself with permanent tingling or numbness after getting your wisdom teeth out. However, this minor risk doesn’t mean you should avoid getting your wisdom teeth removed if they cause other medical problems for you.
Your doctor or dentist should inform you of the risk of complications. But they should also do everything they can to minimize that risk.
The Mandibular Nerve and Dental Work
Even barring complications, the mandibular nerve plays a role just about every time you get dental work done, especially in the lower part of your mouth.
And, anytime you have dental work done, you’ll face a small risk of permanent nerve damage. Your important nerves don’t run very close to your upper teeth. But the mandibular nerve can sometimes lie dangerously close to your lower teeth.
Wisdom tooth extraction is a common case in which patients face this risk. However, nerve damage also makes a rare complication for procedures like dental implants and other dental surgeries. That’s why you should always work with an experienced, responsible dentist who can minimize your risk.
And in any dental surgery, you’ll need local anesthesia so your mandibular nerve won’t transmit pain messages during the surgery. Local anesthetics block the part of the nerve that is affected.
When you get mandibular anesthetic, the doctor will usually start with a topical anesthetic, which numbs the area before the local anesthetic injection.
After the topical treatment starts to work, you’ll get the injection. Then, you’ll need to wait a while to make sure it works. Some people may need two injections to block the pain.
In rare cases, the dental anesthetic may fail to work altogether. Everyone’s mouth anatomy looks a bit different. For some people, their anatomy prevents the anesthetic from getting where it needs to go.
When that happens, you might need to get the injection in a different place or get the entire area of your mouth numbed.
After the anesthesia wears off, your nerves will start transmitting pain signals again. You might feel some pain or soreness after the procedure. And that’s a good thing -- your ability to feel pain makes up an important part of the healing process.
Of course, if you experience extreme or chronic pain after dental work, schedule another appointment to get it treated.
Should You Worry About Mandibular Nerve Issues?
The good news about mandibular nerve issues is that they’re not common. Nerve damage as a complication from dental work especially doesn’t happen often, and a good dentist can keep the risk to a minimum.
However, knowing which issues exist can help you know how to treat them if you experience them. Anytime you feel recurring or consistent pain, tingling, or numbness in your lower face or jaw, your mandibular nerve plays a role. Injury to this nerve can usually get successfully treated, regardless of the cause.
Do you have a nerve injury caused by surgery? Tell us about it in the comments and then read our guide on how to cope.
Featured Image via Pixabay