It’s like adding insult to injury. Temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ) is a condition that can be debilitating for daily life. Jaw pain and loss of mobility in the jaw can make simple things like eating, drinking, and talking a challenge. TMJ sufferers may even experience pain that radiates across their face and down their neck and shoulders. TMJ is now known to be a cause of headache and migraines. Headaches and TMJ are a powerful (and painful) combination. Here’s what you need to know about TMJ headache and migraine.

Can TMJ cause headaches?

It’s helpful to understand TMJ and what it is before linking it to headaches. Temporomandibular joint disorder is a chronic pain condition affecting an estimated ten million people in the U.S. The temporomandibular joint is a sliding hinged joint that connects the lower jaw (the mandible) to the skull. This joint allows the jaw to open, close, and move side to side.

People with TMJ experience pain, swelling, and restricted mobility in this joint. TMJ has a variety of causes, including:

  • Injury or trauma
  • Deterioration due to arthritis
  • Erosion in the joint or the disc that cushions it

People who clench their jaws and grind their teeth are more likely to suffer from TMJ. The added continual pressure and tension in the temporomandibular joint irritates and inflames the tissues in the joint.

The important factor that connects TMJ and headaches is the muscle in the jaw that surrounds the temporomandibular joint. The tension in the jaw is felt in the muscles of the jaw, specifically the temporalis muscle. The temporalis muscle is a fan-shaped muscle on the side of the skull. It originates at the temporal bone and then circles under the cheek bone to attach to the mandible. This muscle, when taxed, can cause pain that is similar to a tension headache.

What causes TMJ headaches?

The temporalis muscle is involved in all actions of the jaw. When we talk, chew gum, or eat, this muscle is the engine that powers the motion. If overtaxed, the temporalis muscle becomes tight and sore.

Even if TMJ is not caused by bruxism, the pain and inflammation in the jaw can cause a TMJ sufferer to tighten their temporalis muscle. Either way, the groundwork for TMJ headache is laid by these actions. Having TMJ does not automatically mean you will suffer from TMJ headaches, but your chances increase when TMJ is present.

Another factor in TMJ headache is the trigeminal nerve. The trigeminal nerve enervates the face and jaw, originating just above the mandible in front of the ear. Typical movements that would cause TMJ (clenching, grinding, or trauma) can cause the trigeminal nerve to release chemicals that produce swelling in the brain and sinus cavity, causing migraine.

What does a TMJ headache feel like?

TMJ headache symptoms are often misdiagnosed as simple tension headaches. A study by researchers from the University at Buffalo’s School of Dental Medicine has found that tension headache symptoms could be replicated in study subjects 82% of the time simply by manipulating the temporalis muscle.

Richard Ohrbach, D.D.S., Ph.D., UB associate professor in the Department of Oral Diagnostic Sciences noted that: