Understanding TMJ Headaches 

A TMJ headache is an often excruciating experience that is caused by damage or issues to the temporomandibular joints (TMJ). These are the joints that connect your jaw to your skull. The mandible is the lower jaw, and the temporal part is the bone at the side and base of the skull. A properly aligned jaw makes things like chewing and yawning easy.

When the jaw joints are not aligned or are damaged, TMJ disorder occurs. This can include tension in the skull, neck, face, and temple of the head. With this tension comes unbearable headaches. There are many things that can be done about these headaches to make life easier. Use this guide to learn of the many causes, symptoms, and treatments for TMJ headaches. Some of these treatments you can start using at home today.

Causes of TMJ Headaches

There are many causes of TMJ headaches. Some of the causes of these headaches are natural, while others can be caused by injury or trauma. The most common causes of TMJ headaches include:

  • Injury and trauma
  • Teeth grinding
  • Arthritis
  • Malocclusion or badly aligned teeth
  • Chronic stress
  • Dental problems

There are other lifestyle factors that can contribute to these headaches. If you use your teeth as tools for example, like taking a cap off a bottle with your mouth, you may develop TMJ disorder and TMJ headaches. Bad chewing habits, such as chewing on pens or nails can also result in TMJ if done excessively.

Another key causal factor in TMJ headaches is bad posture. That is because bad posture can put a strain on your neck or your facial muscles, which can in turn cause headaches. There are also some diseases of connective tissues that can result in TMJ.

This is an extremely painful condition that can be debilitating for people suffering from TMJ. The unfortunate thing about this disorder is that the pain is in a location of the body that is difficult to treat. It is not like a sprained ankle where you can put a brace on and get some therapy. The symptoms of TMJ and the tension headaches from TMJ are often an extraordinary intrusion on quality of life.

Symptoms of TMJ Headaches

There are many symptoms of TMJ headaches. That is because the location is everything here when it comes to this disorder. There are so many muscles and nerves along the jawline, and at the base of the head where this disorder can be found.

The most common symptoms of TMJ headaches include:

  • Jaw pain and stiffness
  • Headaches – migraines, tension headaches, cluster headaches
  • Tinnitus or ringing or buzzing in the ear
  • Face pain
  • Neck and shoulder pain
  • Toothaches
  • Trouble opening and closing the mouth
  • Clicking or popping noise along the jawline

Every person that suffers from TMJ headaches will suffer in varying degrees. Some people will live with these symptoms every day, or will only have one or two symptoms. Others will experience the symptoms occasionally and treat them occasionally. There are some cases where extreme treatment is required as a step in pain management.

a woman experiences a TMJ headache

Treatment for TMJ Headaches

There are many different treatments for TMJ headaches. If you or someone you love suffers from TMJ, you will likely include all methods of treatment for TMJ at some point. Treatment for TMJ is comprehensive and includes a variety of elements:

  • Lifestyle changes
  • Medical treatments
  • Surgery

Stress plays a large role in TMJ disorder. Finding tools to help you to manage that will go a long way toward symptom relief.

Lifestyle Changes

Stress and lifestyle factors play a large role in pain management, particularly when it comes to headaches. Learning how to manage stress, or finding new tools and resources to manage stress, can help you to manage the pain of your headaches considerably. You can take advantage of resources such as a monthly massage or chiropractor session that can help you to unwind and loosen up any tension.

Sleep habits also play a role in your TMJ treatment. Some studies indicate that sleeping on your stomach can make your TMJ worse. You may also be grinding your teeth in your sleep, which is a key cause of TMJ. Using mouthguards while you sleep can also greatly reduce the number of headaches you get with TMJ.

Eating a healthy diet and staying active can be an effective lifestyle change that treats your TMJ. This improves your cardiovascular system as well. An active lifestyle is a healthy lifestyle, and this will help you to sleep better too.

Medical Treatments

There are a number of different medical treatments that can treat TMJ. The kind of treatment you undergo for your TMJ will be directed by your doctor. Pain management is key in the treatment of TMJ, and it can be very difficult to isolate the right kind of pain medication that will help you to find relief.

Anti-inflammatory medication or NSAIDs like ibuprofen is a good starting point for over-the-counter medication for TMJ. Other pain relievers such as acetaminophen can help. You may need stronger pain management relief that includes prescription NSAIDs like naproxen, or a pain reliever with codeine.

For people that have TMJ because of teeth grinding, muscle relaxants can be extremely effective in helping them to treat their TMJ headaches. If pain management and lifestyle changes are not helping, your doctor may recommend surgery.

There are different kinds of surgery that will treat TMJ pain. An arthrocentesis may be the procedure you get. In this procedure, a needle is used to draw fluid from the joint and help you with your symptoms. An arthroscopy is a procedure where an incision near your ear is made, and a camera and scope are put into the jawline to get an image of the jawline.

This will help your doctor to assess the cause and source of your pain. You may also have open joint surgery, where the entire section of this jaw is opened, as opposed to a tiny incision for an arthroscopy. Here your doctor will make a larger cut in order to correct your jaw with surgery.

Preventing TMJ Headaches

The cause of your TMJ headaches will play a large role in whether or not you will be successful in preventing them. Still, TMJ headaches can be prevented with a few lifestyle changes. A mouth guard at night will help prevent TMJ headaches if tooth problems are the source of your headaches.

Along with a mouth guard, you also want to watch the kinds of food that you are eating. Avoid crunchy or hard foods and candies if you know you have TMJ and it is an issue for you.

Regular jaw exercises can help with your TMJ as well. If you can work out your TMJ muscles and jawline, it may be easier for you to open and close your mouth, which in turn could prevent more headaches.

You will also want to work on your posture if you have posture issues. This can be easily accomplished with a few ergonomic changes in your lifestyle. Add new desk chairs or sit differently when you are watching television. You may be surprised at how a few posture changes can affect your headaches.

Mindfulness techniques that help you to reduce stress can help with prevention by providing relaxation. When your muscles are tense, your body is going to naturally feel more pain. Bring more relaxation techniques into your days, such as meditation, yoga, or prayer if you have that resource in your life.

TMJ Headache Remedies

Although you may have many prevention methods to prevent TMJ headaches, you will not always be successful. There are many different remedies that you can try as you work on relieving your pain.

Massage and Exercise Jaw Muscles

First, you want to practice not moving your jaw in a way that will trigger TMJ pain. Practice learning how to yawn and chew without moving the muscles and bones that will trigger the pain. Learn some relaxation techniques that will help you to do this. Massaging your jaw muscles will help as well.

Improve Posture and Sleep Patterns

Posture and sleep also go a long way toward treating TMJ pain. If you are sitting in awkward positions for a long time, it could trigger jaw pain. Find furniture with back supports that can help you here.

You also want to work on finding a sleep position that does not put pressure on your TMJ areas. Bring more pillows in your bed to support both your back and your neck, and try not to sleep on your stomach.

Reduce Swelling With Compresses

A hot or cold compress can go a long way when you have TMJ pain. These will help to ensure that your swelling is reduced and the blood flow is increased to this area of your body. When that happens, you will find more relaxation in your TMJ zone.
Doing this 15 to 20 minutes at a time could prevent a number of headaches for you.

Medication for Pain Management

When all else fails, use some pain management techniques with over-the-counter pain medication that can help you to manage your pain. Acetaminophen and ibuprofen are two pain relievers that can work wonders on tension headaches from TMJ. These will also bring analgesic relief to the zones that cause TMJ headaches.

Treat Your TMJ Headaches Today

If you have tension headaches from TMJ or TMJ headaches, life probably feels difficult on your headache days. You are among the millions of people that suffer from this condition. TMJ headaches can be excruciating and can severely impact your quality of life. These are treatable issues though.

In most cases, TMJ can be cured. If your case is extreme, your doctor may even recommend surgery. Treating the symptoms will often be enough to make the worry about the condition go away. Lifestyle changes, posture changes, eating changes, and even changing your sleep habits are all things that will treat TMJ headaches effectively.

Sometimes, the headaches will go away on their own permanently. Some people suffering serious tissue or bone damage will need to manage these headaches for life. Find the solution that works best for you.

Sean Byers, MD

Sean Byers, MD

Sean Byers is currently a Resident in the Internal Medicine program at UTMB. He studied at the University of Queensland School of Medicine as well as received his Master’s in Public Health with a focus in epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of Southern California. His background is in biology, computer science, public health, and internal medicine.

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