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Jaw Problems Can Be a Headache

By Beth Jennings, PT, MPT 

Headaches can be a temporary nuisance arising from a sinus infection, lack of sleep, or your boss asking again about the TPS report. But for some, headaches are a debilitating condition impacting function and quality of life.  

The prevalence of adults reporting recurring headaches, including disorders such as migraines, tension headaches, and cluster headaches, comes in at about 50% worldwide.  

One association headache research is finding is the connection to the temporomandibular joint (TMJ), the area where the jaw meets the skull. 

One study reported 56.6% of participants with one symptom related to this joint had headaches, and up to 72.8% who reported three or more symptoms related to the TMJ had headaches. 

 

The Temporomandibular Joint 

Yes, the name is a mouthful. Bad pun aside, the TMJ is named for where the jaw bone, the mandible, connects to the temporal bone of your skull.  

Ligaments, muscles, nerves, blood vessels, and a disk within the joint all allow this mandible to move. This hardworking joint lets you effectively eat, talk, yawn, and whistle for the dog to come home. 

Find the joints by placing two fingers in front of the small flap of tissue in front of each ear called the tragus. 

Feel what happens under your fingers when you open and close your mouth, slide your jaw left and right, and jut your chin forward like a bulldog. Do you feel any pain or clicking?

Now slide your fingers up to your temples and feel the muscles at work when you clench your teeth. Any tenderness here? 

 

TMD vs. TMJ 

TMD, or temporomandibular disorder, is the medical condition of the joint. Specifically, the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research defines TMD as including: 

  • Pain of the muscles and fascia, the connective tissue surrounding the muscles that control the jaw, neck, and shoulders. 
  • An internal issue in the joint, such as a displaced disk, injury to the boney surfaces, or even a dislocated jaw. 
  • Degeneration of the joint surfaces, such as with osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis. 

The abbreviations TMJ and TMD are commonly confused, but remember that TMJ is the joint. TMD is the problem with the joint.  

 

Common Symptoms of TMD 

  • Jaw pain, particularly in the mornings or after eating 
  • Earaches or ringing in the ears (unrelated to an actual ear canal problem such as an ear infection) 
  • Clicking, popping, or locking of the jaw 
  • Limited motion of the jaw 
  • A shift in the alignment of the top teeth to the bottom teeth 
  • Dizziness 
  • Pain in the neck, shoulders, or upper back 
  • Headaches  

Headaches associated with TMD include migraines and tension-type headaches. In fact, in one study, those with TMD symptoms were twice as likely to also have migraines than those with tension-type headaches.  

Where Does Physical Therapy Fit In? 

The physical therapists at FYZICAL – Forest Grove can assess your headaches and jaw pain and provide a treatment plan. The evaluation will include a thorough review of your symptoms and medical history, then an assessment of the following: 

  • Postural alignment 
  • Range of motion of your neck, shoulders, upper back, and jaw 
  • Muscle tightness and tenderness in the same areas. 

A treatment plan is formulated based on the findings with a plan that will likely include: 

  • Education on posture, therapeutic exercises, and other self-care techniques. 
  • Hands-on techniques by the physical therapist to improve range of motion, muscle tension, and pain. 
  • Referrals to your dentist or primary care provider if needed. 

Gather more knowledge on headaches and TMD, and call us if you would like to set up an evaluation.  

 

Beth Jennings, PT, MPT is a freelance health writer and a physical therapist.

Disclaimer This blog is provided for informational purposes only. The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

References:

Inna E. Tchivileva, Richard Ohrbach, Roger B. Fillingim, et al. Clinical, psychological, and sensory characteristics associated with headache attributed to temporomandibular disorder in people with chronic myogenous temporomandibular disorder and primary headaches. The Journal of Headache and Pain. 2021;22(1):1-11. doi:10.1186/s10194-021-01255-1

Argueta-Figueroa L, Flores-Mejía LA, Ávila-Curiel BX, Flores-Ferreyra BI, Torres-Rosas R. Nonpharmacological Interventions for Pain in Patients with Temporomandibular Joint Disorders: A Systematic Review. Eur J Dent. 2022;16(3):500-513. doi:10.1055/s-0041-1740220

World Health Organization Fact Sheet: Headache Disorders. 8 April 2016

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