TMJ Headaches & Migraines
by Dr. Scott Bolding
Table of Contents
01. How Do TMJ Disorders Cause Headaches?
02. How to Know the Difference Between TMJ Headaches and Regular Headaches?
03. TMJ Disorders and Migraines
04. TMJ Migraines
Your jaw joints, otherwise known as TMJs, are two of the most important joints in your body. They make it possible for you to open and close your mouth to eat and speak. You probably don’t think about your jaw joints often, but when they are damaged, they can cause some serious pain. This is known as a TMJ disorder.
The most common symptoms of TMJ disorders are: jaw joint pain, clicking and popping in the jaw, and ear pain. Headaches and migraines are also common symptoms of TMJ disorders. Unfortunately, many people don’t realize that their headaches may be the result of issues in their jaw joint. In fact, some studies have shown that headaches caused by TMJ disorders are misdiagnosed as tension headaches 31% of the time.
That’s why it’s important for us to discuss TMJ headaches and migraines. We want you to be able to understand how TMJ headaches happen, how TMJ disorders can trigger migraines, and how they can be treated.
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How Do TMJ Disorders Cause Headaches?
Your body works as a system. That means when one part isn’t functioning correctly, it can have an impact on other parts. So, when one or both of your jaw joints become damaged, it can cause stress to the muscles around it. For example, one of the primary muscles that moves the jaw covers each side of your head. When your TMJ is damaged, these muscles have to work harder than normal. Over time, these muscles will become inflamed, which can lead to headaches.
The trigeminal nerve also plays a role in TMJ headaches. MRIs have shown that this nerve is often stimulated during migraines and tension headaches. This nerve sits very close to your jaw joints. So, when you’re experiencing pain in your jaw joint, it can spread to this nerve.
How to Know the Difference Between TMJ Headaches and Regular Headaches
When you first get a headache, you may not necessarily link it to issues in your jaw joint. And it’s true that a lot of TMJ headaches are misdiagnosed as regular headaches.
You can tell if your headache is caused by jaw joint issues if you also have other symptoms of a TMJ disorder such as:
- Jaw joint pain
- Popping or clicking sounds when you move your mouth
- Ear pain
- Stiffness in jaw joint
- Difficulty opening and closing your mouth
You will also most likely experience pain on the same side of your head as the affected jaw joint.
TMJ Disorders and Migraines
Since migraines are a little different than other types of headaches, we want to spend some time looking at how TMJ disorders and migraines are related.
What is a Migraine?
A migraine is a type of headache that is the result of a neurologic disorder. We don’t really know what causes migraines, we can only determine what triggers them. They usually occur on one side of the head. The pain associated with migraines is typically described as “throbbing.”
There are 4 stages of a normal migraine:
Prodrome: This usually happens one or two days before a migraine occurs. You will notice some small changes in your body such as mood changes, food cravings, and fluid retention.
Aura: Some people experience what’s known as an aura right before or during a migraine. The aura causes vision problems. Some people see stars or lights in their eyes, others will have blind spots or blurry vision.
Attack: This is when the headache usually begins. The migraine itself can last 4-72 hours, if not treated.
Postdrome: The stage after a migraine is known as postdrome. This usually takes place during the hours after a migraine and can last into the next day. During postdrome, you may feel drained and tired. You may also still experience some pain when you move your head.
Now, we come to the question of whether or not TMJ disorders cause migraines. The truth is, TMJ disorders typically do not cause migraines. However, issues in the jaw joint can trigger a migraine.
Most people who suffer with migraines have certain stressors that trigger them. These stressors can be emotional, chemical, environmental, or physical. Issues in the jaw joint can trigger migraines because of the physical stress. Most migraine patients have a threshold of stress that they can handle before a migraine occurs, and many times, the pain that comes with TMJ disorders can push them over the edge.
How Do We Treat TMJ Headaches and Migraines?
Since TMJ migraines and headaches are merely symptoms of a larger problem in your jaw joint, the key is treating the TMJ disorder directly.
Most of the time, TMJ disorders can be treated conservatively without surgery. This usually involves temporary lifestyle changes, like going on a soft food diet, which gives your joints a chance to rest. Sometimes, our bodies respond to stress by causing us to clench and grind our teeth. This, in turn, puts extra pressure on the jaw joints. Over time, the TMJ can become worn down and inflamed. Reducing stress can help relieve TMJ pain. Pain medication like acetaminophen or ibuprofen can also help relieve pain both in your jaw joint and your head.
If these treatments don’t help you find relief, you may need to talk to your doctor about other options. They may prescribe stronger pain medication. Depending on your unique case, they may also recommend a mouth guard, which will help reduce the impact of clenching and grinding.
TMJ surgery is also an option in extreme cases. Your doctor will have to examine your jaw joint carefully before recommending surgery. If your TMJ pain is triggering migraines, once you solve the issues in your jaw joint, they should lessen or eventually stop; however, if they continue, you may need to talk to your doctor about additional treatment for the migraines, specifically.
Headaches and Migraines Can be a Sign of a Deeper Problem
Because headaches have so many different causes, you may not always realize that your headache is related to issues in your jaw joint. TMJ headaches are often misdiagnosed, so it’s important to understand how TMJ disorders can cause headaches and trigger migraines. This information will help you be able to talk to your doctor about your headaches so they can help you find relief.
If you are in the process of learning more about your TMJ problems, check out our TMJ Center page for more information.