TMJ Headache: Symptoms, Causes, Relief, and Treatment

Do you have a headache that won’t go away, or one that keeps coming back? If this headache is accompanied by a clicking in your jaw or difficulty extending your jaw completely, a TMJ disorder might be the culprit behind your headache. 

Headaches due to TMJ disorders are very common, but they are also very often misdiagnosed as from another cause. However, knowing that TMJ is causing your headache can help you tailor your treatment to find relief and prevent future headaches from occurring. Thankfully, those who suffer from TMJ headaches can often manage their pain on their own, although a doctor can provide guidance for those unsure if TMJ is the reason behind their headache. 

What is a TMJ headache?

A TMJ headache encompasses pain that occurs due to a disturbance in the temporomandibular joint. This joint connects the jaw to the skull and allows your jaw to move side to side and up and down. Because of this role, it is responsible for movement in your jaw and allows for actions such as talking, chewing, and laughing. 

However, the TMJ allows for both hinge and sliding motions, which means that it is a more complicated joint. The more complex a joint, the more likely something can go wrong, causing problems. When something goes wrong with the TMJ, a variety of symptoms can occur, including headaches. 

It is often challenging to diagnose headaches as being related to TMJ, though, and you have to recognize other symptoms common in those with TMJ disorders. 

What Causes TMJ Headaches?

TMJ headaches stem from problems with the temporomandibular joint. While the name headache suggests that the pain comes from the head, a TMJ headache is actually due to tension in the muscles surrounding the jaws, which can then radiate to the face and head. 

Doctors do not currently know what causes TMJ disorders, but it may be something as simple as teeth grinding. This is because grinding your teeth can cause the muscles in your jaw to tense up. Since these muscles also run up to the cheeks, when they tense up, they can spread up the head and to other muscles on the side and top of the head, leaving you with a headache.

However, teeth grinding is not the only speculated contributor to TMJ headaches; doctors also suspect that the following conditions can cause them:

  • joint hypermobility
  • osteoarthritis
  • osteoporosis
  • stress
  • improper bite
  • jaw dislocation

TMJ Headache Symptoms

In most cases, those with TMJ headaches will also have other symptoms, which may include:

  • jaw or facial pain
  • tight jaw or facial muscles
  • restricted movement of the jaw
  • a “clicking” noise in the jaw
  • changes in the way your top and bottom teeth fit together
  • ringing in ears

It is the presence of these additional symptoms that helps to diagnose the cause of someone’s headache as due to TMJ.

Those with TMJ may also find that their headaches are triggered by excessive jaw activity, such as chewing gum, consuming hard foods, talking a lot, grinding their teeth, or clenching their jaw. 

What Does A TMJ Headache Feel Like?

TMJ headaches are often reported to feel like tension headaches, which feel like a tight, dull ache across your temple region. However, TMJ headache locations are usually in the same one or more regions of the head and face. They most commonly occur on one side, correlating to the side with a jaw problem. 

Those who experience TMJ headaches also note that they occur frequently and worsen with clenching, jaw tension, stress, or jaw movement. 

TMJ Headache Treatment

Since TMJ disorders are still being studied to determine a safe and reliable treatment plan, doctors typically recommend conservative treatments that can be done easily at home. 

However, for severe cases of TMJ disorders, there are some treatments doctors can assist with, including both permanent and non-permanent varieties. 

At Home TMJ Treatments

The following at-home treatments are the recommended approach for managing TMJ headaches. 

Avoid Hard or Chewy Food

Hard and chewy food can be difficult for those with TMJ disorders to chew, often exacerbating their pain. If you notice any TMJ symptoms along with a headache, try to focus on softer foods that do not place too much strain on the jaw.

Reduce Stress

One coping mechanism for stress is jaw clenching, but this can cause tension in TMJ muscles, leading to a TMJ headache. To help reduce stress, focus on destressing exercises such as meditation, yoga, or low-intensity workouts such as walking. 

Rest Joints

Since TMJ headaches are often triggered by excessive jaw movement, restricting your movements can help to rest your jaw and prevent future headaches. Restrictions include opening your mouth and moving your jaw side-to-side only within ranges that are comfortable. 

Additionally, some people with TMJ may notice that their symptoms only appear when chewing on one side. If this is the case, avoid chewing on the side that causes pain, clicking, or other symptoms. 

Medical Treatments For TMJ

The following medical treatments include both non-permanent and permanent options. 

Medication

If lifestyle changes and over-the-counter medication are not helping the symptoms of your TMJ headaches, a doctor may be able to prescribe a stronger medication for the discomfort you are experiencing. 

Bite Guards

While bite guards have not been conclusively shown to relieve TMJ pain, they do help protect your teeth from grinding. So, if your doctor thinks teeth grinding is something you suffer from, a bite guard may be a beneficial addition. 

Physiotherapy

Physiotherapy can help provide jaw pain relief through techniques such as acupuncture, posture improvement, relaxation exercises, and neck treatment. These techniques help to release pressure in the muscles surrounding the TMJ, which can then prevent headaches. 

Surgical Treatments

There are some surgical treatments that can address changes in someone’s bite that may contribute to TMJ pain, but it is important to note that none of these treatments have been proven effective. 

It is essential to use extreme caution when considering a permanent treatment for TMJ, such as surgery, since there is no board certification in TMJ disorders within the medical or dental fields. Because of this, it can be challenging to find a doctor with enough experience in treating TMJ headaches. 

TMJ Headache Relief

For those with a TMJ headache that won’t go away, icing your jaw can help to provide immediate pain relief. Additionally, pain-relieving medications such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAIDs) can help to reduce jaw pain and, thus, your headache. Some over-the-counter options include aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen. 

Jaw exercises can also help to relieve your pain by relaxing your muscles. Some exercise options are outlined below:

Relaxed Jaw Exercise

Resting your tongue gently on the top of your mouth, relax your jaw muscles and let your teeth come apart. Close your mouth and repeat. 

Chin Tucks

Pull your chin back, creating a “double chin”. Hold this position for three seconds and then repeat ten times. 

Resisted Opening and Closing

Placing your thumb under your chin, open your mouth slowly while pushing against your chin to create resistance. Hold for 3-6 seconds and then slowly close the mouth. 

For resisted closing, close your mouth as you place pressure on the top of your chin.

These are just three exercises that can help relax the muscles surrounding the jaw, but a doctor or physical therapist can provide a more detailed exercise regimen to target these muscles and provide relief. 

When To See a Doctor

If you are experiencing frequent headaches or headaches accompanied by TMJ disorder symptoms such as “clicking” in the jaw or difficulty moving the jaw, it is best to visit a doctor. They can discuss at-home treatment options with you and recommend facial exercises and massages to help provide immediate relief. 

In severe cases of TMJ, your doctor can also discuss more permanent treatment options and if they would benefit you. 

Get Help from An Online Doctor

An online doctor is a convenient resource to quickly discuss your TMJ headache with a trained professional. With DrHouse, you can meet with a doctor in as little as 15 minutes to discuss your headache and any other symptoms. Through these appointments, your doctor can offer suggestions for at-home treatments or prescribe stronger medication if over-the-counter options are not enough to relieve your discomfort. 

Key Takeaways

TMJ disorders are conditions involving the temporomandibular joint, or the joint connecting your jaw to your skull. This joint plays an essential role in many actions, such as laughing, talking, and eating. However, if the muscles surrounding the jaw become tense, which can occur with stress or teeth grinding, pain can radiate up the side of the head to the top, causing a TMJ headache. 

Those who experience TMJ headaches typically experience them frequently, and they are most easily distinguishable because they accompany other symptoms of TMJ disorders such as “clicking” in the jaw and difficulty moving the jaw. 

At-home remedies are the best way to treat and find relief from TMJ headaches. Actions such as eating softer foods, managing stress levels, and performing jaw exercises can help prevent TMJ-related pain or manage any existing pain. For those who are unsure if their headache is due to TMJ, meeting with an online doctor can quickly help you find the answers you are looking for.

Sources:

DrHouse articles are written by MDs, NPs, nutritionists and other healthcare professionals. The contents of the DrHouse site are for informational purposes only and are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you are experiencing high fever (>103F/39.4C), shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, chest pain, heart palpitations, abnormal bruising, abnormal bleeding, extreme fatigue, dizziness, new weakness or paralysis, difficulty with speech, confusion, extreme pain in any body part, or inability to remain hydrated or keep down fluids or feel you may have any other life-threatening condition, please go to the emergency department or call 911 immediately.

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