TMJ headaches – what are they and how can you get rid of them?

There are plenty of potential causes for a headache – it can feel overwhelming to try to determine what’s behind the pain you’re experiencing. Though it might not always be your first guess, surprisingly, your jaw might just be the culprit.

The temporomandibular joint (TMJ) connects your jaw to your skull, acting like a hinge. The TMJ is responsible for allowing you to move your jaw up and down and side to side, and enables you to talk, chew, laugh and yawn.

If something is wrong with your TMJ, it can lead to a temporomandibular disorder (TMD). A TMD can present with various symptoms – one of which may be a headache. So, how can you tell if you’re experiencing a TMJ headache, and how can you make it go away?

Causes of a TMJ headache

There are various potential causes which can lead to TMJ pain or a TMJ disorder, which can in turn present itself in the form of a headache. Common causes include:

  • Teeth grinding
  • Tooth or jaw misalignment
  • Injury or dislocation of the jaw
  • Arthritis
  • Dental issues or procedures
  • Infections

The muscles of the TMJ along your jaw and cheeks can cause headache pain when the muscles in the jaw tense up – such as when grinding your teeth, or due to misalignment of the jaw. The pain spreads along the TMJ muscles in your cheeks and jaw, onto the sides and top of your head, creating a headache.

It’s worth noting that the link between headaches and TMJ disorders can go both ways. For some, TMJ pain may cause a headache. In others, a headache may intensify TMJ pain. This link is important in understanding the root cause behind your TMJ headache, and your doctor or physio will be able to help you determine the cause.

Signs of a TMJ headache

It can be hard to distinguish between a TMJ headache and other types of headache. Headaches from TMD often feel like tension headaches, by presenting in one or more regions of the head or face. In addition, TMJ headaches are often mistaken for migraines due to the presence of throbbing pain and/or dizziness.

To help distinguish, some other symptoms you may experience in the event of a TMJ headache include:

  • A clicking noise or sensation from the jaw
  • Restricted jaw movement
  • Facial pain or tight facial muscles
  • Changes to your bite or the way your top and bottom teeth come together
  • Ringing in the ears
  • Pain when chewing, talking or yawning
  • Persistent headaches (headaches that return regularly)

How to relieve a TMJ headache

Short term lifestyle changes can relieve TMJ pain and the associated headache. Avoid chewy or hard foods, minimise jaw movements that can cause pain (such as chewing gum) and reduce stress to avoid teeth grinding and other related behaviours. Icing or applying a heat pack to your jaw can help to alleviate some of the pain. Over-the-counter medication can be effective in minimising your TMJ headache, too.

Getting help

Get advice from a jaw physiotherapist, if your headaches are persistent and you suspect TMD is the cause – they will be able to diagnose you.

Once it’s determined your headaches are caused by TMJ pain, your jaw physiotherapist will be able to treat the cause of the problem, whether it’s muscle tension, joint stiffness or some other cause. While some over-the-counter medications can help reduce the pain of your TMJ headache, the pain will return if you haven’t fixed the main cause. Physical therapy is the best way to overcome your TMJ disorder and leave TMJ headaches in the past.

Your physio will be able to offer you some strengthening exercises for your jaw to help fix the issues with your TMJ. It’s also a good idea to practice some relaxation techniques, which will help you de-stress. Many of us hold our stress in our jaws and don’t even realise!

The takeaway

You don’t need to live with TMJ pain or the related headaches. There are some simple solutions available to help alleviate TMJ pain and heal TMJ disorders. Avoid activities that exacerbate the pain (such as chewing gum), eat foods that require less chewing, try de-stressing techniques to soften the jaw and stop teeth grinding, and seek help from your physio.

Physical therapy can assist in relieving the pain associated with TMJ disorders while treating the root cause, to keep the issue from repeating. Qualified physios that offer TMJ treatment in Perth can give you jaw exercises that will help strengthen your jaw, and ensure you can live pain and headache free.