No one should have to suffer chronic headaches, which can be debilitating and interfere with general life enjoyment. Often, though, patients come to us having suffered unexplained headaches for years. This happens for a number of reasons—either they sought treatment but no one was able to find the source of the problem, or they were misdiagnosed as having migraines or chronic tension headaches, with little promise of relief from the pain. However, unexplained headaches can possibly be coming from what some would consider an unlikely source—your temporomandibular joint (TMJ).
Your TMJ is the joint that connects the lower jaw to the skull. When your teeth are misaligned or the joint isn’t operating correctly, you can develop temporomandibular disorder (TMD). This condition can be recognized by some obvious symptoms, like clicking or popping sounds in the jaw, tired jaws, pain when chewing. Or symptoms can be trickier because they mimic other issues—like earaches or congestion and ringing in the ears, neck pain, and…you guessed it…headaches. In fact, these symptoms so often leave patients traveling from doctor to doctor reaching for a cause that TMJ disorders are often called “The Great Imposter.”
Headaches or migraines?
You may wonder how to tell the difference between a headache and a migraine. If you have TMD, your headache can be as painful as a migraine, but it’s possible that it is felt differently. Typically, TMJ headaches are felt at the temple, behind the eyes, and at the back of the head, with pain radiating down to the neck and even the shoulders. Migraines are often focused on one side, and with a migraine you often are sensitive to light or have visual disturbances.
In addition, if you have chronic unexplained headaches plus any of these symptoms, it makes sense to explore the possibility of TMD:
- Pain or tired jaws when chewing
- Clicking or popping sounds in the jaw
- Limited jaw opening or locking, or difficulty closing the teeth together
- Facial pain
- Earaches, congestion in the ear, or ringing in the ears
- Difficulty swallowing
- Neck and shoulder pain
- Numbness in the hands
- Dizziness or fainting
Why does TMD cause unexplained headaches?
When your TMJ functions properly, cartilage prevents the upper and lower jaw from rubbing together at the ball and socket joint. When it doesn’t, your muscles used for chewing can spasm, leading to strain and muscle tension. Another source of pain may be teeth grinding—patients with TMD clench or grind teeth at night, which can lead to severe head and neck tension during the day. And a misaligned bite can lead to muscle spasms and pain.
Can my unexplained headaches go away with treatment?
The great news is, if your unexplained headaches are caused by TMD, a leading indicator that treatment is working to improve the issue is that the patient experiences a decrease in pain. The goal of all TMJ treatment is to relieve your pain and give you a normal range of motion in your jaw.
Treatment varies based on the severity of the symptoms and the nature of the TMD. Possible treatments include oral appliances, reshaping the teeth, building crowns on teeth, orthodontics, chiropractic, or (rarely) surgery if the joint is damaged. As TMD is progressive, it’s important to seek treatment as soon as possible. (Which also can relieve you from your unexplained headaches and pain sooner!)
If you suspect TMD is causing your unexplained headaches, the best first step is to schedule a consultation. There, we will:
- Take X-rays
- Do a test called JVA (Joint Vibration Analysis)
- Complete a clinical examination to understand the extent of your jaw problem.
- If it’s determined that we can help you, we will set up a final consultation appointment where we will present a treatment plan.
Then you can be on your way at last to relieving your unexplained headaches! Set up your consultation today.
Dr. Brock Rondeau & Associates
Call for an appointment: (519) 455-4110