When you suffer from migraine headaches, you know there’s a huge range of things that can trigger an attack, from what you eat to how much you sleep to the weather. And even if you’re keeping track of all that, some of your headaches can still feel totally random. So you may be wondering, what else could be to blame?
If you’ve noticed that you experience pain in your jaw between or during attacks, you may have done a little digging online and come across something called “temporomandibular joint dysfunction” or TMD. Could this condition you can’t even pronounce have something to do with your headaches?
What is the TMJ exactly?
First, let’s cover some basic definitions. TMJ stands for temporomandibular joint, which is the joint that connects your jaw bone (or mandible) to the top part of your skull. You can feel it by placing a finger in front of each of your ears and then opening and closing your mouth. A complex system of muscles and ligaments support this joint, which means there are lots of opportunities for something to go wrong with it.
A TMJ disorder, then, is any condition that causes pain and dysfunction in the TMJ and the muscles that control jaw movement. There are more than 30 of these, including:
- a slipped disc in the joint
- dislocation or other injury
- incorrect alignment of your teeth and jaw
- teeth grinding or clenching due to stress
While some of those conditions sound a little scary, chances are if you’re suffering from an injury as severe as a dislocated jaw or slipped disc, you’re in enough pain that you know something is wrong. (In that case, you have our deepest sympathies, and please see a doctor as soon as you can.)
Something like clenching your teeth, on the other hand, can be harder to notice, especially if you do it in your sleep. So how can you tell if you have a TMJ disorder? Symptoms to look out for include:
- a painful clicking or popping noise when opening or closing your mouth
- difficulty fully opening your mouth
- pain that spreads to the face, head or neck
- pain while chewing
- stiffness or locking of the jaw
Because head pain can be a sign of a TMJ disorder, you’re probably wondering…
Can TMJ pain really cause migraine headaches?
Possibly! At the very least, there’s a significant correlation between TMJ disorders and migraine. In one study, the most common type of headache among people with TMJ disorders was migraine, while another estimated that jaw pain is the cause of headaches in 14% to 26% of chronic headache sufferers. One small trial suggested clenching your teeth at night specifically could be a contributing factor for chronic migraine.
That being said, TMJ disorders and migraine attacks can both be triggered by stress, so it’s not quite so straightforward as saying one directly causes the other. Regardless, if you’re experiencing both jaw pain and migraine, what you’ll want to know is:
What does a TMJ migraine attack feel like?
Not very different from any other attack, actually. You may experience additional pain in your cheeks and jaw, or other TMJ disorder symptoms, but you could just as easily not notice the TMJ problems at all until your dentist points out you’ve been grinding your teeth.
So how can you tell if a TMJ disorder is triggering your migraine?
Signs that a TMJ disorder is causing migraine headaches
- The clearest signal is if you notice symptoms that aren’t typically associated with migraine during an attack, like painful clicking or popping of your jaw or limited jaw mobility.
- If you catch yourself clenching or grinding your teeth before or during an attack, or you tend to wake up with headaches and jaw tightness or pain, that’s another good indicator that the TMJ is involved in your headaches.
- This one’s a little harder to notice, but if you experience headaches after significant jaw activity (think chewing particularly tough food, chewing gum, or opening your mouth wider than usual), that could point to a connection.
- Here’s the trickiest one: If you’re having trouble finding a preventive migraine treatment that works for you, it could be because you have a TMJ disorder that also needs to be treated. In one study, researchers compared the effectiveness of TMJ disorder treatment and the preventive medication propanolol among people with both migraine and TMJ disorders; their migraine significantly improved only when both conditions were treated.
How do you treat migraine headaches caused by TMJ?
Here’s the good news: You treat TMJ headaches by treating the TMJ disorder itself, which usually isn’t too difficult. There are a variety of approaches to treatment, from basic behavioral changes to medication.
Self care and home remedies
A few simple changes to your habits and routines, like eating softer foods, not chewing gum, or avoiding biting your nails, can significantly reduce your discomfort. There are also some things you can do at home to manage the pain, like massaging your jaw or using an ice pack.
If the root cause of your jaw pain is grinding your teeth due to stress, you may need a more structured stress management program to get it under control. (As a bonus, this sort of training also helps reduce migraine attacks.)
If you’re grinding your teeth at night and overall stress management techniques aren’t helping to control it, your dentist may recommend you wear a mouthguard while sleeping.
The drugs used to manage TMJ pain are similar to many preventive migraine medications, such as NSAIDs, antidepressants, and anticonvulsants. Talk to your doctor if the above treatments aren’t working for you and you’d like to give prescription medication a try.
Physical therapy or acupuncture
If you’re dealing with limited movement in your jaw, a physical therapist may be able to help you restore mobility and reduce pain in the process. Acupuncture has also proven helpful in reducing pain from TMJ disorders.
While there’s no quick fix for TMJ headaches, there’s plenty you can do to manage the symptoms of a TMJ disorder, which can then help get your migraine treatment back on track. If you’ve read all this and think your TMJ might be behind some of your symptoms or you still aren’t sure, talk to your doctor or dentist.
And if you don’t have a doctor who really understands your migraine, Cove’s doctors are available to help.
The information provided in this article is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. You should not rely upon the content provided in this article for specific medical advice. If you have any questions or concerns, please talk to your doctor.
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