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:

“Knowledge about the intersection between jaw pain and headache is not well established, and consequently, jaw pain may be ignored in the differential diagnosis. This can be most unfortunate for the individual, because {TMJ} can be very treatable, but if a jaw disorder is ignored, then treatment for the headache may not address all of the factors contributing to the headache.”

So, what does TMJ headache feel like?

In many ways, TMJ headache symptoms are very similar to tension headaches in that both are painful. What sets them apart are their accompanying symptoms. TMJ headaches can be accompanied by:

  • Ear pain
  • Jaw pain
  • Lack of mobility in the jaw
  • Cracking or grinding noises when you move your jaw
  • Redness, swelling, and tenderness at the temporomandibular joint

Any one of these can indicate that your headache is a TMJ headache.

TMJ headaches can be severe and cross into migraine territory. When this happens, sufferers may also experience:

  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Fatigue
  • Sensitivity to light

How to treat TMJ headaches

Treating TMJ headache symptoms starts with a proper diagnosis.

It’s a good choice to visit a TMJ specialist who can work in conjunction with your primary care physician for a proper diagnosis. If headaches are misdiagnosed as tension headaches and treated as such, they will recur. The best chance for TMJ headache pain relief is to treat the underlying TMJ.

Treating TMJ flare-ups at home can include over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen for inflammation and pain (this will also help with headache pain). Your TMJ specialist might also suggest applying ice for ten minutes at a time to reduce swelling. If you prefer, warm compresses can be soothing.

Eating soft foods like scrambled eggs, yogurt, and mashed potatoes limit the stress on the temporalis muscle, helping to relieve TMJ headache. Avoid hard and crunchy foods until your jaw pain and headache subside.

Long-term treatment

Long-term it’s important to look at the root causes of TMJ. Stress can be a major factor in both TMJ and migraine pain. Minimizing stress and developing meditative practices to deal with stress (e.g., yoga, meditation, and t’ai chi) can go a long way to reduce flare-ups and calm TMJ headaches. TMJ headache sufferers may also find relief from alternative medicine such as acupuncture, chiropractic, and aromatherapy.

For severe TMJ that is leading to migraine, your TMJ specialist might recommend a night guard, A night guard is a dental appliance that re-positions your jaw to ease stress on the temporomandibular joint. In addition, the thin plastic of the night guard prevents wear on your teeth due to teeth grinding and jaw clenching.

As a last resort, TMJ surgery may be necessary. However, always attempt other treatment options before considering surgery, as there are always additional risks with surgery.

For TMJ headaches, it’s important to work closely with your Phoenix area TMJ dentist. Give us a call today to find some relief.