What is the temporomandibular joint, TMJ for short, and how is it linked to headaches?
The TMJ is the jaw joint that helps you to open and close your mouth. It’s involved in all jaw movements like talking, chewing, singing, laughing etc. This makes it one of the most active joints in the body.
You probably wouldn’t even notice all this movement until you have a problem with your jaw. TMJ disorders involve the muscles and joints of the jaw. They can cause mobility issues in the jaw, and often also cause pain in the face and mouth. Some people with TMJ also experience headaches.
What is TMD?
Temporomandibular disorders, shortened to TMD, refer to dysfunction of the joint. TMJ is the joint itself.
Risk factors for TMJ disorders
Certain behaviours mean you may be at more risk for TMJ disorders. For example, if you clench or grind your teeth, food sensitivities, arthritis, emotional factors like stress and depression, structural changes to the mouth such as missing teeth or crowns, and more.
It is becoming more common to see TMJ pain from computer use. This is because often we strain our head position while using a computer for long periods of time. If you hold your head too high or low while looking at the computer screen you could develop TMJ disorders.
On top of this, the pandemic is causing a lot of stress in people and this added stress may also increase the risk of TMJ problems.
And did you know that TMJ is actually the second most common cause of chronic pain?
TMJ disorder symptoms
The symptoms are not always jaw pain. But you can get jaw pain that is mild to severe. You may also experience pain in other parts of the body such as the neck, eyes, shoulders or back. Your jaw may lock, click or pop, or you can have limited mobility of the mouth. Furthermore, you can also experience dizziness or numbness in your fingers.
One of the most common symptoms of TMJ disorder is headaches
Headaches are a common symptom. Usually TMJ headaches feel like a tension headache, but of course this can vary for each person. The pain often means you develop tight muscles in your neck or jaw. Head position can also impact headaches and how much pain you feel.
The timing of headaches is important. If grinding your teeth is the reason for your headache then it may become worse during the night or in the morning when you wake up. If your headache is caused by computer use and the position of your head, it is likely the headache will increase as the day goes on. If your headache has come about due to inflammation, the timing would depend on why you have inflammation to begin with.
Research has shown that there is a relationship between TMJ disorders and headaches. In 2019, a study showed that people who have TMJ disorders also experience more headaches. This research has shown that treating both TMJ and headaches is the most effective way to decrease symptoms.
TMJ headache treatment
There are a number of ways you can manage TMJ headaches.
Firstly, if stress is a component of your pain, try to manage your stress. There are many steps you can take to protect yourself from stress including, eating healthily, exercising, being aware of smoking and alcohol intake, practicing mindfulness, getting restful sleep etc.
You can also use ice or heat to get some relief from a TMJ headache. However, the main treatment is to address the root cause of the problem.
There is some limited research on the use of acupuncture in treating TMJ. If you are interested in trying this, I recommend searching for an accredited and experienced professional in your area and making a booking for a consultation to see if this is something you would like to try.
You could also try the same with a physical therapist as they may be able to show you stretches and exercises that can help strengthen the jaw. It’s best to find a therapist who specializes in TMJ disorders if possible.
If your TMJ is caused by tight muscles, massage therapy or chiropractic care could be beneficial. Massage can help to reduce stress and loosen muscles that are tense.
If you are interested in reading more about how you can relieve your TMJ symptoms, click here to follow Sandra Carter’s TMJ No More Guide.
When to contact a doctor
If you are experiencing TMJ symptoms, or headaches that come frequently, then you should seek the expertise of a doctor. The doctor will determine whether it is TMJ that is responsible for your headaches and pain. If your symptoms persist, it is important to seek medical treatment, your doctor will also be able to recommend other ways of managing your pain.
Headaches can be a symptom of TMJ disorders. However they can also cause symptoms that impact your TMJ. This means the relationship between TMJ disorders and headaches possibly goes both ways. There is a need for further research to understand this.
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