From smiling and laughing to talking and chewing, the temporomandibular joint (TMJ) is what makes the facial movements you make every day possible. But when you have dysfunction in the joint that connects your jaw to your skull, it can bring on debilitating pain, as well as a variety of symptoms, like a TMJ headache.
The TMJ is one of the most active joints in the body, and one of the leading causes of chronic pain from a musculoskeletal condition, accounting for thousands of doctors visits every year. So, how is the TMJ associated with headaches? Let’s break it down.
Understanding the TMJ Headache
On each side of the face in front of the ears is the TMJ, and sitting behind the joint is a major nerve at the center of a network of nerves that cross and connect throughout the face, head, and neck. When the TMJ is affected, pain can spread throughout the face, as well as the top of the head, which can lead to headaches.
TMJ headaches are a common symptom of a temporomandibular disorder (TMD), which refers to any dysfunction in the joint itself. What spurs on a TMJ headache, though, is not so clear cut as it can be hard to distinguish them from a regular headache, but there are several signs that your headaches may be triggered by your TMJ.
Jaw clenching from stress and an unconscious habit like teeth grinding, are just a few examples. Moreover, if your headaches are accompanied by any of the following, your TMJ may be the culprit. These include:
- Mild to severe jaw pain
- Tight facial or jaw muscles
- Pain in the face, eyes, neck, and shoulders
- Ringing in the ears, i.e., tinnitus
- Locking, clicking, or popping of the jaw
- Inability to open the mouth completely
- A change in the way the upper and lower teeth fit together
What You Can Do for TMJ Headache Relief
So, what should you do when a TMJ headache strikes? Treatment will depend on the severity of your pain but you have a few options to consider.
1. Make lifestyle changes
Small changes in behavior can go a long way in alleviating the pain associated with your TMJ headache. Before your next episode, think about the ways you’re managing your stress and pain, as well as the foods you’re eating.
- Stress reduction—Tension is held in the body when stressed, especially in the jaw muscles, and clenching the jaw is a classic coping mechanism. Some of the best ways to reduce the stress in your life is by prioritizing self care, practicing deep breathing exercises, and getting at least seven to eight hours of sleep a night. Learn more about the ways you can manage stress here.
- Pain management—Muscle relaxants and short-term use of over-the-counter NSAIDs like Advil and Aleve can reduce pain from your TMJ headache. Icing your jaw can also help alleviate pain and reduce inflammation around the joint.
- A soft food diet—Consider adopting a diet of softened food that doesn’t worsen your jaw pain. Additionally, avoid foods that require excessive chewing like gum, hard fruits and vegetables, and chewy or tough meat.
2. Practice physical therapy
Physical therapists play an important role in rehabilitation and preventative care, treating patients with injuries, illnesses, and chronic conditions like pain from a TMJ disorder. Moreover, it’s best to find a specialist with significant experience with the TMJ as they can help by teaching you exercises that stretch and strengthen your jaw.
3. Try acupuncture
While research surrounding acupuncture as a treatment for chronic pain needs more investigating, current findings are encouraging. For instance, a study found acupuncture to reduce pain and inflammation by increasing blood circulation to muscles in the jaw, while another study shows acupuncture may be a complementary treatment for TMD.
4. Seek dental treatment
If your TMJ headaches are frequent and severe, it may be time to visit a dentist or orthodontists to evaluate your case. This typically involves specialized X-rays and physical assessments. They can also help realign the jaw if muscle tightness has caused misalignment or fit you with a mouthguard to help alleviate your pain.
The Bottom Line
If you suffer from frequent headaches accompanied by jaw pain or tinnitus, you may have a TMJ headache. While they are uncomfortable, and in some cases debilitating, a variety of treatment methods are available to alleviate pain.
If your pain worsens, talk with your primary care physician about your symptoms and the treatments you’ve tried so that you can create a treatment plan to prevent future headaches. Additionally, connecting with others who also have TMJ headaches can be a helpful way to reduce stress and gain further insight into your condition. Share what has worked for you and your health goals through the Pain Resource Community today.
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