If you suffer from chronic headaches and you haven't been able to determine a cause, you might consider consulting your dentist to determine whether the problem might be related to your temporomandibular joint, or TMJ. This joint is a hinge that connects the jawbone to the skull's temporal bones, which are located in front of each ear. Temperomandibular disorders – or TMDs – encompass a range of problems that can arise from this joint.
Problems with the TMJ can be caused by injuries or trauma, such as whiplash experienced in a car accident, or by surgeries to the area surrounding the joint. Teeth grinding and clenching and arthritis can also cause TMDs. Poor posture, seasonal allergies, and changes in the weather can also contribute to TMDs.
Common TMD symptoms can include pain or discomfort of the face and jaw; problems opening and closing the mouth, and popping or clicking noises when opening and closing the mouth and chewing. TMDs can also manifest as dizziness, toothaches, earaches, tinnitus (ringing in the ears), and even shoulder pain. And problems with the TMJ can also cause headaches.
Not all headaches are created equal, and not all headaches caused by TMDs present in the same way. TMJ-related headaches can mimic migraines (intense pain, facial cramping, and photosensitivity), cluster headaches (pain on one side of the eye), sinus headaches (a feeling of pressure in the sinuses, ears, nose, and eyes), or the dull ache of a tension headache.
Determining whether headaches can be attributed to TMDs is an important first step in their treatment. Your dentist may be able to detect signs of bruxism, or teeth grinding, which can irritate the TMJ. Your doctor might also determine that your headaches are the result of a TMD. Once you have made this determination, it could be that a plastic mouth guard, worn at night, can alleviate symptoms, and your dentist can give you more information about the use of such an appliance. Physical therapy in the form of jaw exercises can also alleviate stress on the TMJ and lessen the frequency and severity of headaches. A new treatment modality is the use of Botox to relax muscles associated with teeth grinding.
If you're a chronic headache sufferer and nothing else you have tried has helped, it's worth at least having a conversation with your dentist that the problem might stem from a TMD. He or she will be able to help you identify whether TMJ treatment could improve your condition.