While we can’t say for certain, some experts suggest that as many as 10 million Americans may be suffering from temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorders, including TMJ headache. TMJ syndrome is pain in the jaw joint that can lead to headaches and starts with a variety of other symptoms.
The TMJ connects the lower jaw (mandible) to the skull (temporal bone) in the front of the ear. It comprises muscles, blood vessels, nerves, and bones. TMJ headaches are common in people who suffer from temporomandibular joint disorder. Often people mistake TMJ headaches for recurring tension headaches; however, research shows that TMJ symptoms do not respond to tension headache treatment. TMJ headache pain must be treated in the same way as TMJ syndrome symptoms.
How does TMJ syndrome cause a headache?
TMJ and headaches can be difficult to live with. For many, it is a constant struggle with chronic pain. So how does the head fit into this? Due to the close proximity of the jaw to the head, it is easy for pain to travel upward. There are a number of nerves in the face that run on the side of the TMJ, so even a small amount of pain in this area can lead to a severe headache.
While research is ongoing, we do know of two main causes of TMJ headaches. Bruxism, or clenching and grinding of the teeth, often leads to TMJ headaches. The clenching and grinding puts a lot of pressure on the muscles and joints, which results in pain. Think of it as the same as when you strain a muscle when you exercise at your local gym. In the case of TMJ headaches, the pain can radiate from the jaw up to the temples to create either a mild, dull pain or a sharp, throbbing pain. Some people also experience cramping in the jaw muscles, which can lead to headaches.
The second cause of TMJ headaches is something called malocclusion. This is when your bite is out of alignment. What this does is put strain on your jaw, thus throwing it out of alignment too. Before long the muscles become fatigued just trying to stay in the right place. This eventually leads to the headache. There have been cases where poor posture causes similar symptoms to occur.
Signs of a TMJ headache
Most of us have experienced a headache from time to time, but sometimes the pain doesn’t happen in a random fashion. In other words, there may an underlying reason, such as TMJ syndrome. While TMJ headaches can be a little different for each sufferer, there is a long list of common TMJ headache symptoms.
- Clenching and grinding of teeth
- Sore or loose back teeth
- Sore throat with no infection
- Difficulty swallowing
- Jaw deviates to one side
- Jaw locks open or shut
- Unstable bite
- Pain in eyes, bloodshot eyes, or sensitivity to light
- Decreased hearing
- Hissing, buzzing, or ringing in ear
- Vertigo or dizziness
- Clicking or popping jaw joints
- Pain in cheek muscles
- Uncontrollable jaw or tongue movements
- Neck and shoulder pain and stiffness
- Arm and finger numbness and/or pain
- Pain in forehead and/or temples
- Shooting pain up back of head
- Hair and/or scalp painful to the touch
- Sinus pain
Signs and symptoms of TMJ headaches can be surprising. Some people will experience just a few of the symptoms listed above, while others will have multiple symptoms, some of which can be subtle at times.
Poor posture can be the result of several different behaviors, but it is important to point out that some people who suffer from TMJ headaches have problems with posture. Our head is supposed to be centered over our shoulders; however, if our head is in front of our shoulders when we are upright, we have “forward head posture” that places an immense amount of strain on the neck muscles and vertebrae.
Sleep experts have also reported that snoring can be related to TMJ disorders. If the lower jaw is too far back then the tongue will be further back as well, thus increasing the chances of snoring.
How to relieve a TMJ headache
Finding TMJ headache relief can take time. What works for one person may not work for another. In the matter of how to stop TMJ headaches, patience may be required, but the good news is that there are multiple options to explore.
Before moving ahead with TMJ headaches treatment, first see a doctor to confirm that you, in fact, do have TMJ-related pain. TMJ headache treatment often focuses on the jaw, so if your headaches are not the result of a problem with the jaw, then a treatment for TMJ headaches will do nothing to curb your head pain.
There is little to fear when visiting the doctor or dentist to discuss your pain. Your health-care provider will simply examine your jaw and determine what range it has. They will also press lightly on your jaw, sinus area, and other points to determine where your pain sensitivity is. You may be asked to undergo specific tests, including an MRI, CT scan, or X-ray, to rule out other possible ailments.
Some people who suffer from TMJ-related headaches will be prescribed pain-relieving medications to control pain and inflammation, or muscle relaxants to lessen tension and pain. Others might be prescribed injections, including botulin toxin or a steroid, but these can come with side effects.
The following are some other possible TMJ headache treatments:
- Jaw exercises: A doctor, dentist, or physical therapist can teach you exercises to massage and relax your jaw. Gently opening and closing the mouth helps stretch and strengthen jaw muscles.
- Stress reduction: Since stress increases tension in the facial muscles, including the jaw, stress-reduction techniques such as yoga and meditation can be helpful.
- Regular exercise: Anything from swimming and walking to working out at your local gym can help you better cope with pain.
- Heat and cold: Using either a warm compress or an ice pack on the jaw can ease muscle pain and help prevent a headache.
- Splints: These are made of hard plastic and are created to cover the upper/lower teeth, thus protecting the teeth when you grind and clench the jaw. Splints are worn throughout the day and removed when eating.
- Mouth guards: If you tend to clench and/or grind your teeth at night, consider getting a mouth guard from your dentist to wear when you are sleeping.
- Soft foods: Consume soft foods as eating hard foods can make symptoms worse and lead to headaches.
- Peppermint or eucalyptus oil: Some people have reported that applying a few drops of essential oil to their temples helps relieve headache pain.
- Marjoram tea: Some people suggest this tea has anti-inflammatory properties that can help relieve headaches.
- Acupuncture: A certified acupuncturist may be able to help relieve your pain by inserting small needles into specific parts of your body.
Those who suffer from TMJ headaches often find that certain movements worsen their symptoms. For example, yawning can make the pain worse for some people. Other examples include chewing gum or singing. Obviously, it makes sense to avoid these triggers and any others that might be causing you discomfort.
There are those who receive a diagnosis of TMJ headaches, apply treatment, and are able to keep their pain at bay indefinitely. Some are surprised at how they go from constant agony to feeling little to no pain. Others may still experience TMJ headaches from time to time. If you suffer from TMJ-induced headaches and can’t seem to find relief, make sure you see your doctor regularly so that you can work through various treatment options.