All of us have at one time or another had a headache that stands out in our minds as the mother of all headaches. These painful episodes can be completely debilitating and for many, represents something they have to deal with on a fairly regular basis. While some know and have a fairly good idea of what may have triggered their latest headache; a lack of sleep, superfluous liquor, sinus and allergy issues et cetera, many people have no idea what brings about their episodes. While migraines are certainly common enough to be suspected, it is important to rule out all potential causes for severe headaches. This includes having your dentist perform a thorough examination of your temporomandibular joints (TMJ). The reason their health is worth examining is because issues with the TMJ, jaw and surrounding musculature known generally as TMJ disorders (TMD) are common causes of headaches.
What Causes TMJ Disorders?
The temporomandibular joints are hinge joints that connect your lower jaw with the rest of your face via the temporal bone. They can be felt on either side of your face immediately in front of your ears as you open and close your mouth. The TMJ are responsible for the movement and actions of the jaw muscle including chewing, talking and yawning amongst other jaw related movements both up and down and side to side.
There is no single cause of TMD however they are the result of issues with the TMJ, jaw or its supporting musculature. The most easily identifiable cause is trauma or injury however the issue can also be the result of;
Grinding your teeth or clenching your jaw as this creates unnecessary pressure and tension in the TMJ and facial muscles;
Stress which can inadvertently lead to tightening and tension in the face and jaw;
A misaligned jaw or bad bite that places uneven or unnatural stress or movement on the TMJ;
Poor posture including sitting in a position with your head forward (while typing) which puts undue strain on the face and neck
Although some issues are easily identifiable, other causes such as stress or fatigue are more difficult to pinpoint. What is important is understanding what TMD feels like and how these symptoms lead to headaches and other issues.
How Can I Tell if I Have TMD?
TMD can be an extremely painful issue beyond the potential for severe headaches. Women are more likely to experience issues and symptoms that men and issues tend to occur between the ages of 20 and 40. TMD can manifest itself via several symptoms including;
Pain, tenderness and discomfort in the face, jaw, neck as well as the ear when chewing, speaking or moving your jaw;
An inability to open your mouth as wide as usual;
Clicking, popping and grating sounds in the jaw and near the ear when moving the mouth and jaw;
A feeling of tiredness or fatigue in your face;
Swelling near the ear on one or both sides of your face;
Jaw movement that gets stuck or locked in either a closed or open mouth position; and
Many of the above symptoms can also be the result of other issues including sinus related issues and arthritis.
Treating TMD and TMD Headaches
If you have frequent and unexplainable headaches in concert when any of the symptoms described above, it is prudent to schedule an appointment with your dentist. They will be able to either diagnose an issue, eliminate any worries or concerns you have or recommend you to a specialist, likely an ear, nose and throat (ENT) doctor for further testing.
Your dentist will conduct a thorough exam wherein he will examine your bite alignment, identify areas with increased sensitivity or pain as well as manipulate your jaw and study its movement to determine if TMD related issues exist. X-rays and MRIs may also be recommended to get a better idea of how your jaw and TMJ line up. Your dentist will also be able to rule out other potential causes for your pain and discomfort including tooth decay and gum disease.
If you are found to have TMD and TMJ related issues, all hope is not lost. Gentle therapies including facial stretching and relaxation techniques may be recommended and instructed by your dentist to relieve pain and tension. Other means such as avoiding overuse of the jaw and relaxation and stress-reducing techniques add up over time to relieve pain as well. Other common recommendations include hot and cold packs placed on the face. If you are in need of more permanent or invasive treatment, mouth guards and even corrective braces may be recommended to aid a misaligned jaw or bite. Over the counter pain treatments may also be recommended if needed.
As always, consult your dental or medical professional and never hesitate to get more than one opinion on things that cause you concern.