Can Headaches Be a Sign of Jaw Problems?

The Temporomandibular Joint or TMJ

Temporomandibular joint disorder, also known as TMD, and sometimes referred to as simply TMJ, occurs when problems exist with the muscles or joints in the jaw. The TMJ connects the jaw to the skull and can be felt by placing your hands on each side of your face and opening and closing your mouth. This joint lets you move your jaw from side to side, open and close your mouth and even talk, chew and yawn. When something goes wrong, it can be both painful and challenging to live with.

The National Institute of Health estimates that 10 million Americans are affected by TMJ disorders with more women experiencing the condition than men. Since there is no set standard for diagnosing the jaw disorder, researchers believe more Americans may have TMD than the statistics reflect.

Headaches and Your Jaw

The University of Buffalo’s School of Dental Medicine conducted research that discovered that in many cases, symptoms of TMJ disorders were being misdiagnosed as tension headaches. According to Dr. John Pappas, DDS, of Arcadia Dental Arts in Phoenix, Arizona, there are some things you can look out for to help determine if your headache could be caused by a TMJ disorder.

  • Popping or clicking sound when opening and closing mouth
  • Top and bottom teeth feeling like they don’t fit together as they should
  • Pain that radiates from head down to neck and even sometimes the shoulders
  • Sore facial or jaw muscles, especially upon waking

“Sometimes it can be hard to determine the source of a headache,” said Pappas. “Many people treat the headache with over the counter pain reliever without identifying the source which can be a problem if it’s a chronic concern. Your dentist can help you determine if your jaw could be the cause of chronic headaches.”

Other symptoms of TMJ disorders include:

  • Ear pain and ringing in the ears
  • Difficulty opening the mouth, lock jaw
  • Pain when chewing, yawning or speaking
  • Sensitive Teeth

Treatment for TMJ Disorders

The exact cause of TMJ disorders is still uncertain, but most research suggests a number of possible causes depending on each patient. Trauma to the jaw, overuse of the jaw, misalignment of the bite and grinding of the teeth are a few possible causes. Determining the cause helps dentists like Pappas help patients find the best course of treatment to relieve pain.

“One of the most common ways we treat TMJ disorders is with a splint or night guard,” Pappas said. “This helps prevent the pain and damage caused by clenching or grinding of the teeth, especially during sleep.”

These sleep appliances are similar to mouth guards worn in sporting events and are used to protect the teeth and jaw from grinding and clenching. Dentists like Pappas custom fit the oral devices to fit the teeth of each individual patient for comfort and effectiveness.

Some patients have found relief through simple measures such as switching to a diet of softer foods, eliminating gum chewing, jaw massage, hot and cold compress therapy and stress relieving to eliminate clenching.

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