Headaches are a common symptom of temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorders. These are the joints that allow you to close and open your mouth and to do other unique jaw movements. In fact, TMJ headache arises as pain and dysfunction in the temporomandibular joints which can affect not only your jaw but other parts of the face, ear, and head. In this article, we will discuss the relationship between TMJ disorders and headaches, what are other TMJ symptoms, and what to know about available treatments.

What is TMJ?

The TMJ is the short for temporomandibular joint which are the two sets of joints located on each side of your head in front of your ears. These joints connect your lower jaw (mandible) to the temporal bone of your skull. They enable jaw movements and thus chewing, talking, yawning, and swallowing.

TMJ disorders, also called TMD, refers to the group of conditions that cause pain and dysfunction in the jaw joints and muscles controlling the joints movements.

What causes a TMJ headache?

Simply, TMJ headache happens because of the underlying issues related to TMJ disorders. Although the exact cause of TMD may often be unknown, it can be a result of a jaw injury, teeth grinding (bruxism), or arthritis conditions such as osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis.

It is clear that the TMJ pain is not just restricted to the jaw as there are interconnected head and facial muscles involved and a network of nerves in between. When the muscles in the temporomandibular joint area become inflamed or tense up, the pain can spread to other parts of your head and face, causing a headache.

Therefore, not only headaches but also facial pain, ear pain, and feeling of pain behind your eyes are also common with TMD.

What are the symptoms of a TMJ headache?

TMJ headache can be a dull aching pain on one or both sides of your head/temples and different regions of your face. The pain may aggravate by jaw movements and certain jaw activities like clenching or grinding teeth. 

There are many other typical symptoms of TMJ disorders which may indicate if your headache is related to TMJ. This includes:

  • Jaw and facial pain
  • Stiffness and soreness on one or both temporomandibular joints (TMJs)
  • Pain when chewing or upon opening or closing your mouth
  • Jaw clicking or popping sounds
  • Restricted jaw movements
  • Ear pain or other ear symptoms like ringing in the ears (tinnitus)
  • Worn down and sensitive teeth due to effects of bruxism (teeth grinding or jaw clenching)
  • Pain behind the eyes, in the neck, or in your shoulders
  • Malocclusion or misalignment in the upper or lower jaw

What are treatment options for TMJ headaches?

When it comes to treating TMJ disorders—and therefore relieving TMJ headaches— there are various options. Your dentist will work out the recommended treatment based on the severity of the disorder.

Normally, most treatments tend to be conservative. They can range from simple lifestyle changes to therapies. In most cases, TMJ dysfunction is mild and the symptoms go away with simple self-management. It is because a majority of TMJ disorders are not usually severe enough to require surgery.

Lifestyle changes

Changing certain habits in your everyday life can help ease your pain and improve TMJ dysfunction. Some of these effective home tips include:

  • Having a soft-food diet and avoiding hard or chewy foods that demand extreme jaw activity
  • Avoiding postures and jaw movements such as leaning on the chin, opening your mouth wide, and chewing gum  
  • Doing jaw exercises and stretches to decrease jaw muscle tension, improve jaw mobility, and reduce headache
  • Applying ice packs and heat compresses to the affected area

Your dentist or doctor can also recommend medications for temporary use to reduce and manage pain caused by TMJ disorders. This may include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or stronger medications such as muscle relaxers or certain types of antidepressants, especially if you have severe jaw pain and TMJ headaches.

Behavioral and physical therapies

Physical therapies and cognitive behavioral programs have been a safe and effective way for the management of TMD. The goal of behavioral therapies is to decrease stress or anxiety and relieve emotional tension through relaxation techniques. With physical therapy, you help restore jaw joint function, reduce joint inflammation, and eliminate muscle pain.

Here are what your therapist may recommend to relieve symptoms of TMJ disorders including TMJ headaches:

  • Relaxation techniques to manage stress or ease tension in the body like mindfulness work, yoga, and mediation
  • Regular physical therapies to stretch and strengthen jaw joints and muscles as well as working on good posture
  • Acupuncture
  • Biofeedback

Dental and orthodontic treatments

Sometimes you might need other treatments to accompany your self-care home remedies and therapies. Using oral appliances like mouth guards is one of the most effective forms of TMJ treatment. Mouth guards protect your teeth if you are grinding your teeth. They also help realign your jaw and adjust your bite in a relaxed, optimal position.

Your dentist will also check the alignment of your teeth and jaw. To correct your bite, you might require more permanent solutions like dental procedures or even orthodontics.

Dentists and orthodontists will examine the severity of your TMJ disorders. Accordingly, they will determine the suitable treatment to alleviate your TMJ pain while restoring correct jaw and teeth function. These treatments may include:

  • Mouth guards to prevent bruxism
  • Mouth guards (oral splints) to realign your bite
  • Placement of a dental crown or using fillings to restore damaged teeth
  • Implants and dentures for replacing missing teeth
  • Orthodontic treatments (braces or Invisalign) to correct malocclusion in the jaw or misaligned teeth

Surgical treatments

You need to talk to your dentist or TMJ specialist if your symptoms worsen or fail to respond to other forms of treatment. Surgical intervention is rarely used with TMJ disorders. In fact, most people will find relief with conservative treatments and proper home management.

However, if an invasive approach is necessary to treat your TMJ disorders and thus relieve your TMJ headache, your doctor will figure out the ways to alleviate your pain. Surgical treatments may range from Botox injections to more serious surgeries like open-joint surgery or arthroscopy.

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