TMJ and Headaches: What’s the Connection?

The temporomandibular joints are the pair of joints that connect your mandible, or lower jaw, to the skull. Under normal conditions, these joints move freely up and down, and side to side, as you talk, chew, or yawn. But if the free movement of the TMJ is compromised because the jaw is badly aligned, the joint may not work properly. And since one of the largest nerve clusters in the body is located at the TMJ, this means pain: pain in the jaw, neck, or face, and headaches.

At Woodlands Premier Dentistry, trained neuromuscular dentist Dr. Scott Young will help you identify jaw alignment problems that lead to TMJ-related pain and headaches. Dr. Young will recommend simple techniques for self-care at home, and will provide professional treatment options for improving your jaw alignment and relieving your pain.

TMJ-related PainA stressed man suffereing from a Headache and needing treatment from a Dentist like Dr. Young at The Woodlands in Houston Texas

Problems with the TMJ may result from

  • Trauma to the jaw — jaw injury or whiplash
  • Bite problems (malocclusion) or other dental issues that contribute to jaw misalignment
  • Chronic muscle tension, causing clenching or grinding of the teeth

The proper name for the pain, stiffness and other symptoms related to the TMJ is temporomandibular joint disorder, or TMD.  New research suggests that many TMD symptoms originate in the muscles attached to the TMJ that move the jaw. For that reason, some dentists prefer the term “myofascial pain dysfunction.” In many cases psychological stress, leading to constant tightening of the jaw muscles, causes the muscles to spasm and pull the TMJ out of proper alignment.

See TMJ Symptoms to learn more.

How TMJ Causes Headaches

Although TMJ is a jaw disorder, it can cause far-ranging symptoms, and one of the most common symptoms is headaches. TMJ often causes three different kinds of headaches:

  • Tension headaches
  • Migraines
  • Referred pain headaches

Tension headaches are the most common kind of headaches. They are caused by muscle tension, and they feel like a dull, aching pain that constricts the skull. TMJ causes these headaches because it leads to tension in the jaw muscles, which extend from the bottom of the jaw to the side of the skull behind the eyes.

The link between TMj and migraines is more complicated. Partly, we still don’t understand the true nature of migraines, but it seems that they are triggered by overstimulation of the trigeminal nerve. TMJ may cause overstimulation of the trigeminal nerve because the nerve controls the jaw muscles, and if the jaw muscles are overactive, it can potentially overload the trigeminal nerve. The trigeminal nerve is also interwoven with the muscles of the jaw, and overactive jaw muscles may put pressure on these branches, triggering migraines.

Referred pain headaches are just pain in the jaw that feels like it’s a headache. This is more common than you might think, and is part of the reason why TMJ pain can be hard to track down.

Treatment Options

Many non-invasive treatment approaches can provide relief for TMJ-related pain and headaches. Your neuromuscular dentist can help you decide which will work best for you.

Self-care options include resting the affected jaw, using warm compresses and/or ice packs, a soft, non-chewy diet, improved posture, and over the counter anti-inflammatory medicines and pain relievers.

In-office dental options include orthodontics (custom-made splints or bite plates) to prevent teeth grinding, especially at night; the use of biofeedback therapy and relaxation techniques to alleviate muscle tension; and TENS therapy (low-level electrical current applied to relax the jaw muscle). Your dentist may also recommend specific treatments to correct bite problems.

Other professional options might include physical therapy services like ultrasound, or massage therapy.

If you live in Houston or The Woodlands, Texas area and need relief for headaches that might be TMJ-related, please call (281) 367-5559 or contact the offices of neuromuscular dentist Dr. Scott Young, at Woodlands Premier Dentistry.