Temporomandibular disorders and associated headaches

Temporomandibular disorders, otherwise known as TMDs, can cause a variety of symptoms for patients — but headaches are one of the most common and one of the most painful. You’ve likely heard about “TMJ,” the temporomandibular joint, and the associated discomfort that comes with it. People often misspeak when discussing the temporomandibular joint, and will make statements like, “I have TMJ.” Yes, you do have a TMJ — everybody does! What they really mean is that they have a TMD, a disorder of the joint that is likely causing them pain, discomfort, and other debilitating symptoms in their head, jaw, and upper body.

Unfortunately, TMDs have become more and more common in our modern population of stressed out individuals, yet doctors nor dentists really know what causes them. Let’s learn a little more about the joint itself, and the correlated symptom of headaches.

What is the temporomandibular joint? The temporomandibular joint is located on either side of your head, right in front of your ears. The joint consists of your jaw bones on either side, and a disk of cartilage in between that protects the bones from damage as you chew, yawn, and speak.

There are a few things that cause extra tension in this joint that lead to TMDs: the grinding and or clenching of the teeth, arthritis in the joint, as well as overall stress that encourages further tightening or clenching of the jaw. TMJ-related pain is often described as being dull and achy, localized, and sometimes radiates from the jaw out further into the head and upper body.

How are TMDs and headaches related? Headaches from TMDs are believed to be caused by the tightening and overuse of the muscles of the jaw, shoulders, neck, and scalp, all of which put pressure on nearby nerves and blood vessels. The trigeminal nerve is a large one that carries signals from the brain to the spinal cord and brings information about facial expressions and pain signals. It also impacts cues to the body about blood supply and air pressure. The trigeminal nerve is located very close to the temporomandibular joint, which means that it’s unfortunately often impacted, and headaches ensue.

If you’re experiencing jaw pain and headaches, reach out to your dental care team for an assessment. They will be able to utilize imaging equipment to take a closer look at your jaw and examine you for TMDs. Luckily, there are plenty of treatment options these days — from creating a mouthguard that prevents you from grinding your teeth at night, to physical therapy sessions specifically targeting the TMJ. Contact your dentist’s office to learn more about your options.

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