TMJ headache begins as pain from the temporomandibular joint spreads from the jaw to the face, cheeks, and head. In most cases, TMJ headache is due to TMD, which can be caused by bruxism, arthritis, and more.
Management of TMJ headaches depends on the cause and severity. Most dentists prefer to begin with the least invasive approach and only progress to more extensive treatments as needed.
In this article, we will explore the causes, symptoms, and treatment of TMJ headaches, as well as tips for preventing this condition.
What is TMJ?
The TMJ, also called the temporomandibular joint, are the joints located on either side of the jaw. They connect the lower jaw to the skull and allow it to move around. TMJ disorder, or TMD, is a disorder affecting these joints.
Symptoms of TMJ Headache
A TMJ headache begins as a pain in the temporomandibular joint that travels to other parts of the face/head. Symptoms typically range from a mild tension headache to a migraine attack. Other symptoms include:
- Recurring pain on one/both sides of face/head
- Irregular jaw movements
- Inability to open mouth fully
- Pain/difficulty chewing
- Tenderness/soreness in one/both temporomandibular joints
- Clicking/popping/locking of the jaw
The headache will often respond to treatment and will not return within 3 months.
Causes of TMJ Headache
TMJ headache falls under the category of temporomandibular joint disorder, or TMD, which relates to the jaw and surrounding muscles/tendons. TMD includes:
- Hypermobility of the TMJ
- Arthritis of the jaw
- Dislocation of the jaw
- Misalignment of upper/lower jaws, also known as malocclusion
The above issues cause inflammation, which causes pain- which triggers nerve activity and widespread headache. Additionally, the disk that separates the upper/lower jaws may slide out of place, causing the jaw to lock or pop.
Diagnosis of TMJ Headaches
Typically, TMJ headache diagnosis will be made during a standard dental checkup. During the checkup, the dentist will:
- Assess your medical history, including your medications
- Range of motion of your jaw when opening/closing
- Pressing on the face and jaw to locate areas of tenderness
- Physically assessing the TMJ and surrounding areas while opening/closing your mouth
There are several treatment options for TMJ headaches, ranging from lifestyle modifications to surgery. Your dentist will work with you to create a customized treatment course that fits your needs.
In some cases, you may be able to prevent or ease TMJ headache with some changes/adjustments to your lifestyle, including:
- Applying heat/ice after the pain has begun
- Eating soft foods to avoid causing tension/strain on the TMJ
- Avoiding chewing on non-food items
- Wearing oral appliances to avoid teeth grinding and reduce tension
- Working with a physical therapist to learn certain exercises to improve mobility/flexibility
- Careful jaw movements
- Improving posture
Many times, the first treatment recommended is OTC or prescription-strength pain relievers including:
If these medications are not effective, your care provider may prescribe other medications including:
- Muscle relaxants
If the pain doesn’t respond to lifestyle changes or medications, the next option is medical treatments such as:
- TENS therapy (in-office or at-home)
- Trigger point injections
- Radio wave therapy
- Botox injections
In some cases, TMJ headache could be caused by malocclusion. In this case, the dentist will need to correct your bite. Some of the most common procedures used for bite correction include:
- Orthodontics (traditional braces or clear aligners)
- Dental bridge
- Dental crown
Some patients find relief from TMJ headache pain with alternative approaches including:
- Relaxation (meditation or mindfulness work)
Since surgery is extreme and invasive, it is a last resort. This is highly successful but is not appropriate for all cases. The three most common surgical options include:
5 Tips to Prevent TMJ Headaches
Severe cases of TMJ headache can be difficult to cope with and can have a significant impact on your mental health. However, there are some things you can do to deal with and prevent this condition:
- Learn to manage stress
- Track your condition and learn your triggers
- Seek professional help
- Ask for the support of family, friends, and colleagues
- Connect with others who have the same condition and have learned to successfully manage it
FAQs on TMJ Headaches
If you have any questions about TMJ headaches or other symptoms associated with TMD, feel free to contact your dental team.
What does a TMJ headache feel like?
TMJ headache often start as a tension headache and may progress to a migraine attack.
How do you relieve TMJ headaches?
There are several options for relieving TMJ headaches starting with non-invasive lifestyle changes to invasive surgery. Dental providers prefer to use the least invasive approach possible and will only recommend surgery if nothing else is working.
Can TMJ cause headaches?
Yes, TMD is the most common cause of TMJ headaches.
How I cure my TMJ naturally?
Depending on the severity of your TMJ, you may be able to cure TMJ with some lifestyle changes. These include sticking to a soft foods diet, avoiding chewing on non-food items, using heat/cold packs to manage pain, improving posture, avoiding using teeth as tools, and wearing a mouthguard/nightguard to prevent tooth grinding.
What triggers a TMJ headache?
Everyone is different and has different triggers for their TMJ headaches. The best way to determine your triggers is to track your condition.
How long does TMJ pain last?
Everyone is different and the length of a flare-up will vary, depending on the trigger as well as other factors. In some cases, a flare-up will last for a few days, in other cases, it may last several weeks or more.