Updated: Oct 12
Some headaches are more than what they seem because they could be triggered by other conditions such as your TMJ (temporomandibular joint).
What you're picturing in your head is correct, your TMJ is the joint that connects your lower jaw to your skull. Unbeknownst to most people, problems and dysfunctions with that joint can lead to what is known as TMJ headaches.
So, if you're having a headache, it may be more than just that because it could be a TMJ headache instead. Fortunately for you there are ways to treat this combination of headache and jaw pain. The purpose of this article is to let you know how you can tell you have it and what you can do about it!
Table of Contents:
What is a TMJ headache?
What it means to have a TMJ headache is when you have problems with the joint and its related muscles but it manifests as a headache. More often than not, the headache ends up being so much worse than their jaw pain that they don't even realize that their jaw is also hurting. All they can think about and focus on is the headache that is hurting them.
This condition is more common than you may think, according to studies, general TMJ problems affect approximately 5-12% of the general population.
Women are also twice as likely to get it compared to men.
Between 48-77% of patients with TMJ disorders will experience TMJ headaches.
Therefore having headaches and jaw pain is not unusual since they seem highly correlated with one another.
Here are some common symptoms to help you distinguish what a TMJ headache feels like and also what other people describe it as.
Jaw tension headaches
Jaw clenching headaches
Tight facial and jaw muscles
Clicking noise in their joint
Problems with moving their jaw side to side
Difficulty opening and closing
Bite feels different
It also doesn't have to hurt your entire head nor your entire jaw because the jaw pain and headache could just be on one side only.
The location for where you feel a TMJ headache can vary because it can appear anywhere along your face. Nonetheless, here are some common spots for the pain to be felt.
Around the temples of your head
Right in front of your ear canal
Around your lower jaw
All of these locations may feel painful or tender if you try to touch them.
Can TMJ cause headaches?
Headaches can be caused by your TMJ disorder when the muscles which control the jaw tense up or spasm. Due to the fact that your TMJ muscles are located on your face and head, you will feel like your head and face hurts. If it hurts enough, it will feel like your typical headache except for the fact that it was triggered by your TMJ disorder.
This means that these headaches are not the primary cause of your pain but rather a secondary one. The source or root of the pain actually stems from your TMJ problem, which may be due to teeth grinding or teeth clenching. In other words, in order to treat this headache, you actually need to treat the TMJ muscles in addition to relieving the headache via traditional means.
Here is a diagram showing all of the TMJ muscles, which are also commonly known as the muscles of mastication or otherwise called chewing muscles:
As you can see from the location of where the temporalis muscle is, it is right where your temples are. Therefore if this muscle tenses up and has a muscle spasm, it can very well feel like a headache.
All of the other muscles are nearby the joint as well so when they tense up, they can also refer pain upwards towards your head. The muscles that may refer the pain to your temples are the lateral pterygoid, medial pterygoid, and the masseter muscles.
To sum it up, TMJ headaches are a result of spasms in the muscles that control your temporomandibular joint.
Here is a list of the individual muscles that controls the TMJ, which may be contributing to the headache:
Lateral Pterygoid - protrudes and rotates the mandible; It basically unlocks the jaw so that it can open
Medial Pterygoid - elevates and protrudes the mandible; It basically assists in closing the jaw and chewing
Temporalis - elevates and retracts the mandible; It basically assists in closing the jaw and chewing
Masseter - elevates and protrudes the mandible; Chewing and grinding muscle
All of these muscles act on the jaw and what they allow you to do is open, close, and allow to to eat. If they have problems, you will have difficultly with all actions that involve your jaw.
TMJ headache relief
Since the headaches stem from the muscles which control the joint, TMJ headache treatment should focus on treating those same muscles. This means that if you want to get rid of this kind of headache, you need to address whatever is causing the muscles to be unhealthy. If you don't, the TMJ headache won't go away on its own because it does require professional intervention.
Here are some common treatments that your dentist may use to relieve your headache associated with TMJ:
Massaging your muscles
Trigger point injections
Make a night guard
Massage - Myofascial release
If you are grinding your teeth or clenching them night after night, your TMJ muscles will get tight and sore. If left untreated, the muscles can develop muscle knots that cause spasms and refer pain to the surrounding areas.
In order to release the tension and get rid of the muscle knots, you will have to massage them. This means you'll have to massage the temporalis, masseter and both of the pterygoid muscles.
Here is video to demonstrate how to massage some of these muscles to release their knots:
Unbeknownst to many but doing TMJ exercises can help with relieving the pain. Here are some common exercises by Kaiser Permanente:
Tongue rest position - tongue to roof of the mouth and make a clucking sound while maintaining teeth slightly apart.
Controlled opening - tongue in resting position; place fingers over TMJ; open mouth as far as possible while keeping tongue in contact with roof of mouth
Isometric stabilization - place tongue in rest position for entire duration of this exercise; without allowing jaw to move try pushing your jaw left and then try pushing it right; hold each resistance for 5 seconds
Isotonic stabilization - mouth slightly open and place your fist underneath your chin; try to open your mouth while resisting the opening with your fist
Head flexion and neck extension - interlock hands behind your neck; nod neck forward and tuck chin backwards for repetitions
Posture exercise - tuck your chin and then pull your shoulder blades down and back; hold for a count of 5 seconds
Opening - place thumb and index finger between your front teeth; try to pry your mouth open; do this exercise only if you have trouble opening your mouth!
Trigger point injections
As an alternative to massaging the muscles knots, you can also receive injections with either a local anesthetic or steroids right into the knot. This technique is called a trigger point injection, with basically means that the knots are triggering your pain.
This treatment may provide you with instantaneous TMJ relief when compared to all of the other treatments because you can feel the injection immediately. Of course, this isn't something that you can do by yourself at home because it requires a healthcare professional. Some dentists can do it but the vast majority are TMJ specialists.
If you're grinding your teeth and clenching them a lot, usually the first line of treatment would be to have a night guard made. This is a custom made oral appliance by your dentist that you wear only when you go to sleep.
Its purpose is to protect your teeth from grinding on each other and also to prop your mouth open a little to relax your joint. If you don't have one, you should try having one made to see if it helps. If it does, it would be one of the easiest and simplest solutions.
If you're having headaches but you can't figure out what is causing it or where it is coming from, you may want to have your dentist take a look because it could be a TMJ headache. If it is, there are treatments available for it that can get rid of the headache. If it was a normal headache, you would be out of luck because all you can do for that is just take pain medication and wait it out.
This is why it is important to not skip your routine dental check ups because you can catch things that you never would've even thought of!
Author: Written by Dr David Chen, a long island city dentist.