Headaches are the most common health complaint in the world and the most common cause of medication overuse. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), headache disorders — characterized as migraine, tension-type headache and cluster headaches — affect more than half of the world’s adult population regardless of age, race, income levels or geographical location.
In the United States, headaches are the number one health complaint, and an estimated 50 million people suffer from chronic headaches. Many of those sufferers experience little relief with over-the-counter pain medications and therefore struggle with a reduced quality of life – including missed work and missed school — because of the pain their headaches cause.
Headaches are so prevalent in our society that June is designated as National Migraine and Headache Awareness Month. The medical community frequently is looking at new causes of and treatments for headaches. However, many practitioners fail to examine the root cause of the problem.
In their acclaimed book , Myofascial Pain and Dysfunction: The Trigger Point Manual, Dr. Janet Travell and her colleague Dr. David Simons presented research to show that small trigger points in overworked or traumatized muscles are the cause of most headaches. These trigger points characteristically send their pain to some other place in the body, Travell found.
Dr. Bernard Jankelson, a dentist and a pioneering researcher in cranio-mandibular orthopedics, conducted groundbreaking research to connect head pain with jaw malfunction.
Yet, despite these experts’ research and many other studies backing up their work since then, headaches still are one of the most misunderstood and misdiagnosed of all health problems. One such misunderstanding is that migraines, which are considered to be the most severe form of a headache, is a primary symptom of TMJ disorder (TMD) and is often diagnosed as something completely different.
The temporomandibular joint (TMJ) is the hinge that connects your jaw to your skull, allowing you to talk, to chew and to yawn. Other indications of TMD are a clicking or popping of the jaw joints, pain in or around the jaws, and a limited opening (or locking sensation) of your mouth. Disorders occur when there is either an internal derangement of the joint or a misalignment, resulting in muscle tension and a host of related symptoms including headaches.
Let’s examine two of the most common forms of chronic headaches — migraines and tension headaches – and their relationship with TMJ Disorder.
A migraine is a chronic headache that is characterized by throbbing pain usually on one side of the head. Bright light, certain sounds, smells, stress, physical activity or hormonal changes can trigger the pain, which can be severe if left untreated. Some people experience visual changes – called auras — before, during or after the headache.
More than 10 percent of the U.S. population, including children, suffers from migraines. During a migraine, blood vessels in the head become inflamed and swollen, and doctors believe the pain is caused by the inflammation and the pressure on the walls of the blood vessels.
Many migraine sufferers do not realize that TMJ could be the cause of their head pain, so they do not mention teeth or jaw clenching or other TMD symptom to their doctors. However, when the TMJ is misaligned, the surrounding bones, muscles and nerves are affected. An undiagnosed and untreated misalignment then can cause the muscles in your face, head and neck to strain with every movement. As a result, you may experience migraine headaches, along with accompanying nausea and light sensitivity. See our TMJ migraine symptom page for more information on the relationship between migraine headaches and TMJ dysfunction.
Tension headaches are characterized by a continuous, not throbbing, pain in the forehead, temples, and/or back of the head or neck. Sufferers describe the pain as a tightening around the head or neck that can only be relieved by certain positions. Many people say a tension headache feels as if a rubber band is tightening around the head or neck.
Unlike migraines, tension headaches are not accompanied by other symptoms, such as nausea or light sensitivity, and researchers have not linked tension headaches with the same triggers as migraines. Tension headaches can occur infrequently, regularly, or daily and can last anywhere from 30 minutes to several days.
Tension headaches affect women significantly more than men and can occur at any age. They are also normally associated with stress or fatigue, but often can have their root in physical problems involving the muscles of the jaw and neck.
A 2006 study by the University of Buffalo’s School of Dental Medicine examined the difference between TMD and headaches in 583 people who previously displayed TMD symptoms.
The researchers found that they could reproduce tension headache symptoms in 82 percent of the participants by performing standard clinical examinations of the TMJ. The leader of the study, Richard Ohrbach, D.D.S., Ph.D., stated, “TMJ is very treatable, but if a jaw disorder is ignored, then treatment for the headache may not address all of the factors contributing to the headache.”
If you are experiencing chronic headaches, you owe it to yourself to rule out TMD as the cause of your pain and discomfort. Neuromuscular dentists is experienced in evaluating the TMJ as a possible source of your headache pain.
By working with the pain source rather than just the pain location and by re-aligning a bad bite so that your teeth, muscles and joints work together without strain, neuromuscular dentistry frequently can relieve the pain associated with migraine headaches.
With proper diagnosis and treatment, you may avoid the dangerous cycle of an expensive and possibly harmful drug treatment regimen and, more importantly, experience life-changing pain relief.
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For more on the research and relationship between TMJ disorder and migraines see: