Headaches are one of the hardest symptoms to treat, in part because they can be associated with many different conditions. To make it worse, headache care has not advanced nearly as much as care for other conditions. The result is that many people with headaches find they have a hard time getting effective headache treatment. But we can help many people find true relief. If your headaches are linked to temporomandibular joint disorders (TMJ or TMD), we offer a drug-free, nonsurgical treatment that can permanently reduce or eliminate your headaches–including migraines.
Three Types of Headaches Linked to Jaw Dysfunction
When we first tell people that their headaches are caused by jaw dysfunction, many don’t see how they’re connected. However, there are actually three different types of headaches that can be caused by jaw dysfunction:
- Tension headaches
- Referred pain headaches
If you have TMJ, you might actually have all three types. Fortunately, resolving your TMJ can positively influence all three types. This can lead to very dramatic improvement in your headaches.
Tension Headaches and Jaw Dysfunction
Tension headaches have the most straightforward connection to TMJ. If you have a jaw dysfunction, it can be hard for your jaw to find its position of maximum rest. This causes your jaw muscles to be in constant tension, leading to soreness and spasms that trigger tension headaches.
Why does this cause headaches and not just jaw pain? In part, it’s because the jaw muscles stretch all the way up the side of your head and attach beside and behind the eyes. Put your fingers on your temples next time you’re chewing, and you’ll see. The jaw muscles are the largest and strongest muscles in your head.
But it’s not just the jaw muscles that cause the problem. Your jaw muscles work with other muscles in the head and neck, and when the jaw muscles are tense, they can pass their tension onto their partners.
And, of course, there’s the phenomenon of referred pain, which we’ll talk about more later.
Migraines and Jaw Dysfunction
Migraines remain somewhat mysterious, but we’ve tracked the trigger point of this type of headache to the trigeminal nerve, which is how they link to jaw dysfunction. The trigeminal nerve has many small branches, and when some of these branches are pinned under jaw muscles, they can be put under pressure that leads to migraines. This has been confirmed by surgery which removes these nerve branches or the muscles to relieve the pressure. This is also how botulinum toxin injections cure migraines–they relax these jaw muscles.
The other way that jaw dysfunction can lead to migraines is by overloading the trigeminal nerve, which sends commands to the jaw muscles and receives pain and other feelings back from them. When the jaw is imbalanced and the muscles in pain, the volume of signals going through the trigeminal nerve can lead to overload, and in response the nerve releases neurotransmitters that trigger migraines.
Referred Pain Headaches
Another way that jaw dysfunction causes headaches is through the phenomenon of referred pain. Referred pain is when a source of pain in one place is felt in another place. For example, the pain of a heart attack can be felt in the arm or the jaw. That’s because our nerves aren’t like phone lines that make specific connections from one point to another, they’re more like streams that merge as they come from your body and go to your brain.
Pain signals are like dye that gets poured into a tributary. When it flows into the main channel, it can get mixed up, and the brain has to interpret where that dye is coming from. Sometimes it gets it wrong, and this can make your brain think that jaw or tooth pain is actually a headache.
Sleep Apnea and Headaches
While TMJ can cause all these types of headaches, it’s important to remember that sleep apnea can also be a cause of your headaches, especially if you’re waking with them.
Sleep apnea can cause tension headaches because when your airway collapses, your jaw often clenches to try to hold it open. This repeated tension can cause jaw pain and headaches.
Oxygen deprivation and lack of sleep cause the classic sleep apnea headache.
We’re not entirely sure of the connection between sleep apnea and migraines, but we know it’s strong: studies show that treating sleep apnea can cut migraine frequency over 90%!
Let Us Help with Your Headaches
Are you unhappy with the severity or frequency of your headaches? Are you having trouble getting effective headache treatment? Please let us test your for jaw dysfunction or sleep apnea to see if we can help. Please call 613.271.7091 today or book an appointment with Dr. Stevens at Andrea Stevens Dentistry in Kanata.