Headaches are a common, nonspecific symptom linked to many conditions. Temporomandibular joint disorders (called TMJ or TMD) can cause regular headaches, but it’s not uncommon for these to get misdiagnosed. They might be considered primary, be attributed to stress, or diagnosed as migraines. Treating headaches without understanding their true cause leads to poor results.

Is TMJ Causing Your Headaches?

As we said above, there are many potential causes of headaches. So how do you know if TMJ is causing your headaches? You should suspect TMJ if at least one of the following is true:

  • Current headache treatments aren’t working well
  • Headaches flare after jaw activity
  • You have other TMJ symptoms

Headache treatments come in two types. Some headache treatments try to prevent or stop, by addressing the headache’s cause. Others just try to dull the pain. If you are not happy with the results of current headache treatment, you should keep looking for the true cause of headaches.

Often, heavy jaw activity can trigger headaches. Chewing gum, eating hard foods, yawning wide, or talking a lot all put stress on your jaw. If any of these also lead to your headaches, then you should get tested for TMJ.

Headaches are just one possible symptom of TMJ. If you think TMJ might be responsible, consider whether you have other TMJ symptoms such as jaw pain, neck pain, irregular jaw motion, tinnitus, or sound in your jaw joints. Check a more complete list of TMJ symptoms on the main TMJ page.

Types Linked to TMJ

TMJ is a complicated condition, and it can be linked to multiple types of headaches. The three most common types of headaches people with TMJ experience:

  • Tension
  • Migraines
  • Referred pain

People often experience multiple types of headaches when they have TMJ.

Tension Headaches

Tension headaches are caused by tense muscles. They are the most common type of headaches–and the most common headache associated with TMJ. Usually, tension headaches hurt on both sides of your head. They usually feel like a tightness around the head and cause a steady ache. The pain intensity is usually mild to moderate.

TMJ causes tension headaches in large part because the jaw muscles are the largest muscles in the head. Some of these muscles stretch up to attach behind your eyes on the side of your head. In addition, the jaw muscles work with other muscles in the head and neck. When jaw muscles are tense and stressed, they pass on their tension to their partner muscles, making them tense and sore.

Sometimes, tension headaches can trigger migraines.

Migraine Headaches

Migraines often cause pain on one side of the head. Migraine pain is usually moderate to severe. In addition, people with migraines often experience numerous other symptoms, such as:

  • Sensitivity to light
  • Sensitivity to sounds
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Dizziness
  • Visual artifacts like dancing lights

Migraines may be preceded by a prodrome phase, which might trigger low mood, moodiness, and some of the other migraine symptoms. Migraines may last for days, and postdrome symptoms can continue for days after the pain subsides.

We don’t fully understand migraines or how TMJ can cause them. However, we know that many migraines trigger in the trigeminal nerve. The trigeminal nerve carries signals from the brain to the jaw muscles, and pain signals back from the jaw muscles to the brain. TMJ causes some migraines because branches of the trigeminal nerve weave under jaw muscles. When the jaw muscles are stressed, they put pressure on the nerves, triggering migraines. Other times, it seems that stress from overactive jaw muscles triggers an overload in the trigeminal nerve, which sets off a cascade of effects, including the release of CGRP (calcitonin gene-related peptide), which sets off migraines.

Referred Pain

Referred pain is one of the more mysterious phenomena in the human body. Essentially, pain caused in one part of the body is felt in another part. For example, pain in your jaw might be felt as headache pain.

This occurs because your brain interprets pain signals as being from the wrong place. People often think about nerve signals as phone calls, with a jaw muscle calling the brain. This isn’t entirely wrong, but the calls aren’t like modern cell phones, where you can see who is calling you before you even decide to answer. Instead, they’re more like old-fashioned party lines where one telephone line served several houses. When the brain gets a call, it guesses which “house” along the line is calling, and sometimes it’s wrong.

Trigger point injections let us target the true source of headache pain, even if it’s not actually where you feel the pain.

Relief for Stubborn Headaches in Detroit

If you have headaches that aren’t responding to your current headache treatment, let the Warren, MI TMJ treatment dentist help. Since 1985, he has been helping people in the Detroit area get relief from TMJ pain, including headaches. He has assembled a great team that helps him provide effective relief as well as an outstanding experience that makes you feel welcome and heard.

Please call (586) 573-0438 or email the Michigan Head and Neck Institute today to request an appointment.