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Understanding TMJ headaches: Why they occur and how to treat them

3 minutes, 49 seconds

There are many different types of headaches: tension headaches, cluster headaches, migraines, cervicogenic headaches, etc. They vary in degrees of pain, and each has its own causes, symptoms and treatment options. Many headaches start as pain in other parts of the body, such as the neck or back, before manifesting as head pain.

TMJ headaches are unique in this regard because they stem from pain in the jaw joints, specifically the temporomandibular joint (TMJ). We'll talk more about TMJ headaches below.

What is TMJ disorder?

TMJ disorder (technically called TMD) is a medical condition characterized by a misalignment in the temporomandibular joints, which are the joints that exist where your lower jaw meets your skull. These joints, which consist of the mandible jaw and the temporal bone, are the joints that rotate in front of your ears when you open and close your mouth. They are ideally supposed to be aligned so that you can chew and talk with ease, but a misalignment of any bones or soft tissue can cause headaches, myofascial pain, joint dislocation, and degenerative joint disease in the jaw.

Why does TMJ cause headaches?

Your temporomandibular joints are very close to your brain, so it doesn't take long for pain to travel from your joints to your head. This pain may be caused by a herniated disc in your TMJ, which occurs when the disc that cushions your jaw's movements slips out of place. It can also occur if your jaw becomes inflamed due to arthritis or osteoporosis. Sometimes, TMJ headaches occur due to muscle spasms in the jaw that send pain signals upward into other parts of the head.

Teeth grinding is often associated with TMD and TMJ headaches, as it can apply pressure to your jaw that pushes your joints out of place. Some people experience TMD and headaches after a jaw injury or due to a natural structural issue in their jaw area.

What does a TMJ headache feel like?

TMJ headaches typically feel like other headaches but are often accompanied by pain in the jaw area. They usually recur until the cause of the TMD (disc misalignment, inflammation) is addressed and heals. You may also feel tightness in your facial muscles and jaw, and you may notice a shift in the alignment of your teeth.

Can you treat TMJ headaches at home?

It's recommended to consult a professional for any condition that affects your musculoskeletal system, such as TMJ disorder. However, there are a few steps you can take that may offer temporary pain relief for your TMJ headaches.

  1. Jaw massages Massaging your jaw with your hands can increase the blood flow to that area of your face, sending more white blood cells and nutrients to your injured joints and muscles. The white blood cells fight bacteria to prevent infection while the nutrients can help promote healthy joints, speeding up the healing process.
  1. Jaw exercises Simple exercises like chin tucks, goldfish exercises, and mouth resistance exercises can relieve your jaw pain temporarily and help strengthen your jaw muscles so that chewing and talking hurt less. They can also relax your jaw to reduce any tension that's contributing to your TMJ headaches.
  1. Stress reduction When we experience stress, our jaw muscles tighten, and enough stress can lead your muscles to feel tight and sore all the time. Avoiding stressful situations and taking active steps to manage stress (yoga, exercise, etc.) can help you loosen up your jaw muscles, reduce pain, and improve your jaw's flexibility.
  1. Temporary dietary changes To avoid putting unnecessary stress on your jaw, take a break from eating hard foods that require a lot of chewing. Consider steaming your vegetables instead of eating raw ones, and definitely avoid anything very chewy.
  1. Anti-inflammatory medication Exercise and lifestyle changes are always recommended over medication, but over-the-counter anti-inflammatories like ibuprofen can help to reduce swelling and relieve pain temporarily.

Can physical therapy fix TMJ headaches?

While there's no cure-all fix for TMJ dysfunction, physical therapy can help you to manage the symptoms of TMJ pain flare-ups. Your physical therapist will assess your jaw pain to determine whether it is in fact TMJ dysfunction (or something else) and walk you through a series of targeted exercises designed for pain relief and jaw strengthening. They may also employ manual therapy techniques like joint mobilization to reduce stiffness in your jaw, making it easier to move without pain.

Alliance PTP is ready to help you find top-notch PT for TMJ pain

At Alliance Physical Therapy Partners, we're proudly bringing together physical therapy practices across the country to help people get the high-quality PT they need. Want to see a physical therapist in person? We can put you in touch with an Alliance PTP partner that's close to you and that can help you address your TMJ disorder symptoms.

Not keen on in-person PT sessions or not close to an Alliance PTP partner? No worries. We also offer effective and affordable virtual physical therapy through our Agile Virtual Physical Therapy platform.

Contact our team today so we can help you find the most effective physical therapy services for your injury or condition.

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