Headaches are one of the most common symptoms people experience. It is related to many different health conditions, and it can be hard to track down the origin, which is why many people with TMJ-related headaches are misdiagnosed. Diagnosis is further complicated by the fact that TMJ can cause multiple types of headaches.
Is TMJ Causing Your Headaches?
We can only tell for sure whether your headaches are related to TMJ after a thorough diagnosis. However, there are some warning signs you can watch out for that may hint at a TMJ connection to your headaches:
- Headaches start or intensify after high jaw activity (chewing or talking)
- You clench your teeth before or during headache
- You have other TMJ symptoms
- Headache not responding to conventional care
Again, it takes a comprehensive diagnosis to determine the connection, but you can try the “pencil test” to hint at a possible TMJ connection. When you experience a headache, hold a pencil between your teeth. Don’t bite down on the pencil, just hold it. If doing this affects your headache pain, then it’s likely that your TMJ plays a role in your headaches.
Tension Headaches and TMJ
Just as muscle pain is the most common type of jaw pain related to TMJ, tension headaches are the most common type of headache. Tension headaches range from mild to moderate. The sensation is typically diffuse and often described as feeling like a compression tightening around the head.
It’s not known whether tension headaches are directly related to the amount of muscle tension in the head, but muscle tension seems to trigger them. TMJ can cause excess muscle tension because when the jaw is out of balance, the jaw muscles can’t find a good relaxed position, and they often struggle against one another, increasing tension. This tension is held in the jaw muscles–which stretch all the way up to the side of your head behind your eye–and in partner muscles.
Migraines and TMJ
The exact cause of migraines is mysterious, but many migraines seem to be triggered by the trigeminal nerve. The trigeminal nerve is a large nerve that emerges from the brain stem and carries sensations to and from most of the face, including the jaw muscles.
TMJ can cause overstimulation of the trigeminal nerve in many ways. Overactive jaw muscles may jam the trigeminal nerve with information, including pain signals. The trigeminal nerve also weaves under and around the jaw muscles. Sometimes a branch of the nerve may be pinched by one of these jaw muscles. That pressure can cause the trigeminal nerve to be overwhelmed. As a result, it may release the stress proteins that can trigger migraines.
Studies have shown that cutting away nerves or the muscles that pressure them can stop migraines. Other migraines respond to muscle-relaxing injections in the jaw. TMJ treatment can help relax these muscles and deliver migraine relief without surgery or drugs.
Sinus headaches result when the lining in the sinuses becomes inflamed. The sinuses are hollows in the skull that run under most of your face. When these spaces become infected, they can swell and become painful.
But most sinus headaches are misdiagnosed. They’re not sinus headaches. They may be tension headaches or migraines. Or they may be a toothache in the upper arch. Any of these other causes of “sinus” headaches may be related to TMJ.