When you’ve got a killer headache, it can sort of feel like this:
Or maybe this:
The Definition of a splitting headache
Or even this:
The only thing worse is when it happens day after day after day, and you can’t seem to find anything to make the pain stay away for good.
But as Dr. Fred Abeles, a regional director of the Las Vegas Institute, has said, “Pain doesn’t happen randomly or because of bad luck. There’s a cause and effect to almost everything in the human body.”
One of the most common causes of chronic headaches? Dysfunction in the temporomandibular joints, or TMJ for short.
These joints are the hinges that your mouth opens and closes on. Along with some adjacent muscles, they also let you move your jaws side to side, as well as forward and back. When properly aligned and functioning, the joint looks like this:
See how smooth the movement is when all of the joint components are properly aligned? Now look at the movement when the joint is out-of-whack (and note that this is only one of several distinct types of dysfunction):
You can see why this might be why this might become quite painful over time, with the assorted stresses it puts on the rest of the skull, head muscles, and upper spine! As the muscles that normally support and stabilize the joint become fatigued, pain is the result. Chronic head, face, jaw, neck, and shoulder pain are most common. So are popping and clicking in the joint, ringing in the ears, earaches, difficulty opening and closing the mouth, dizziness, and tingling or numbness in the fingers.
If you experience some of these symptoms in addition to recurring headaches, it’s a strong sign that their root cause is a TMJ issue of some sort, especially if there’s popping and clicking. Here are four other signs that mean you should see a TMJ specialist about your chronic headaches:
- You also feel pain around your temples, in the back of your head, or radiating down your neck. This signifies the kind of muscle fatigue that can happen after enough time of supporting an incorrectly positioned TM joint – just as your biceps, triceps, glutes, and other muscles may ache after especially intense exercise.
- Your bite feels off, like your teeth aren’t coming together comfortably or in harmony with each other. Your TMJ’s position depends on the alignment of your bite, so if your bite is off, those joints are likely misaligned, too.
- Your head rests in a forward position. Your head should be centered over your shoulders, the optimal position for keeping your airway open, free, and clear. But this position is hard to maintain when your bite is off. The further you position your head from that center axis, the more strain it places on your neck, shoulders, and upper back.
- You snore. As we saw in an earlier blog post, sleep apnea and TMJ disorders (TMDs) often occur together. Snoring is a common though not definitive sign of obstructive sleep apnea. It may also signal that the lower jaw is retruded (pulled back), misaligning the jaws and TMJ. Once again, when the bite is off, pain is the eventual result.
The challenge for a TMJ specialist like Dr. Abdulla is determining whether the headaches and other pain are a result of dysfunction within the joints themselves or secondary to myofascial pain of the neck and jaw. (“Myofascial” refers to both the muscles and the connective tissue that covers them.) Treating trigger points in the muscle often results in long term relief, and this is something we can test for and evaluate during your thorough TMJ exam.
Additional treatments, such as the use of removable stabilization splints and in some cases orthodontics can also be used to help correct misalignments. Strategies for managing stress and other environmental factors that may have contributed to your TMJ troubles are something else we incorporate, too, as we take a big picture approach to helping you on your way to better mouth/body health.
The ultimate goal? To do something no aspirin or Tylenol or even more powerful painkillers can do: keep the pain from coming back. For good.