Headaches are telltale symptoms of underlying health conditions. And diagnosing the problem is critical to relieving them. Headaches are prevalent among people diagnosed with temporomandibular joint disorder.
Studies show 80% of people diagnosed with the condition develop headaches and other symptoms. Such headaches can cause extreme discomfort, and finding ways to relieve the pain is critical to managing the condition and improving quality of life. Before looking at ways of relieving TMJ headaches, we explain what the condition entails, its symptoms, and its causes.
What Is TMJ Headache?
TMJ headache is a type of headache caused by TMJ disorder. The disorder affects the movement of the temporomandibular joint, which helps the jaw to open and close.
The headache causes pain in the cheek, face, and head, making simple movements like smiling, talking, chewing, and laughing challenging. There are two reasons one may develop TMJ headache.
The first is jaw tension. When you frequently clench your teeth (bruxism), the TMJ muscles and joints around the mouth region can develop pain. The pain may spread upwards to the temple region, manifesting as mild or severe discomfort.
The second is a misaligned bite. The misalignment can tire the surrounding tissues, e.g., the facial muscles, as the jaw tries to maintain the proper position.
Symptoms of TMJ Headache
Typically, TMJ headache causes pain to spread from the joint to the jaw, forehead, or neck. Some people develop pain in other parts of the head, while others feel pain on one side.
The headache can be frequent and may feel dull and achy, like migraines. It intensifies in the morning when grinding teeth. Sometimes the headache develops before getting diagnosed with TMJ disorder, and looking out for other symptoms goes a long way in diagnosing the condition. They include the following.
- Atypical pain around the cheek muscles
- Painful locking, popping, and clicking of the jaw
- Pain when opening the mouth
- Jaw stiffness and tightness
- Ear aches
- Bad posture
- Reduced mobility
- Changes in the way teeth glide
- Pain and ringing in the ears
- Pain and tenderness around the TMJ region
How To Relieve TMJ Headache
It’s possible to treat a mild TMJ headache using non-invasive treatment options. Here are ways to relieve the pain:
1. Change Your Posture
Poor sitting posture for prolonged periods can cause jaw pain. You want to correct the posture by using a chair with back support and regularly taking short breaks while at it.
Also, adjust the car seat to an upright position when driving and sit in spaces that allow you to maintain an upright position during leisure activities. You may place a pillow behind your back for extra support. Moreover, you can use a back brace to correct your posture.
2. Manage Stress
Sometimes high stress levels can cause one to clench their jaws or grind teeth leading to tooth wear, cracked teeth, and TMJ headache in extreme cases. Before taking a painkiller for that dull headache, you may need to reduce your stress levels. It would help if you take the following steps.
- Identify the Stressors: The first step is to identify what causes the stress and write them down every time you feel stressed. It makes it easy to avoid stressors in the future
- Meditation: This method produces a deep state of calmness and relaxation of the mind. It involves focusing your attention on a particular idea and removing other thoughts crowding your mind
- Journaling: Write what’s stressing you and how it makes you feel. Also, write things you’re grateful for. Combining the two aspects helps you focus on the positive things in life, reducing stress
- Laugh: Allowing yourself to smile or laugh causes the body to produce endorphins which reduce stress
- Avoid postponing: Last-minute activity mounts tremendous stress on the body. Creating a list of things that must be done, starting with the most difficult, can minimize stress
3. Massage the Jaw
A massage is another excellent way of relieving TMJ headaches because it targets the trigger points. For TMJ headaches, the doctor targets the masseter muscle on the face's sides. The muscle is used for chewing, and when it’s injured, stressed, or tight, it can cause TMJ pain.
Massaging this area releases tension around this muscle. There are three ways of massaging the jaw to relieve TMJ headaches:
- TMJ kneading massage: For this massage, the doctor massages the masseter muscles in a circular motion to increase blood flow to the area
- TMJ stretching massage: This technique provides more relief and exercises the muscles that cause TMJ disorder. The doctor places two thumbs above the mandible muscles (below the masseter muscle) and presses them while dragging the thumbs downwards against the jaw
- TMJ friction massage: Sometimes, the pain is so intense that the doctor needs to apply pressure and friction simultaneously. The doctor locates mandible muscles and applies pressure using the index finger
4. Try Jaw Exercises
The exercises are designed to relieve pain while strengthening and increasing jaw mobility. A 2010 study published in the Journal of Dental Research also found jaw exercises are more effective at improving a patient’s mouth opening range than a mouth guard. Some exercises you could try out include:
Overly exercising the area isn’t always helpful when experiencing pain and discomfort from TMJ headaches. Strengthening exercises like resisting mouth-opening and closing are more useful. Resisted mouth-opening exercise increases pressure on the chin when opening the mouth.
Begin by placing two fingers under the chin and open the mouth slowly and add pressure gently. Hold the position for 3-6 seconds and close your mouth.
The exercise is similar to resisting mouth-opening, except you’re closing your mouth. First, place your thumbs under the chin. Then place your index fingers between the bottom of your chin and the mouth ridge. Apply pressure downwards on your chin using your fingers and thumbs while closing your mouth.
The idea is to create a double chin by pulling your chin backward. Keep your chest up, hold your shoulders back, and hold the position for three seconds. You can repeat the exercise as many times.
Side-to-side Jaw Movement
The exercise helps reduce jaw stiffness by encouraging movement. Simply place an object (¼-inch thick) between the front teeth and move the jaw side to side. You can use two popsicle sticks, stacked tongue depressors, or other items with the same thickness. Increase the object’s thickness as the exercise becomes easier.
Forward Movement of the Jaw
The exercise is similar to side-to-side jaw movement, except you move the jaw forward. Simply place a ¼-inch object between the front teeth and move the jaw forward. Ensure the bottom teeth are in front of the top to create reasonable pressure. Increase the object’s thickness as the exercise gets easier.
This exercise is pretty simple to perform. Simply allow your tongue to rest on the roof of the mouth. Then, open and close the mouth 10-20 times to complete a set. Repeat the exercise twice a day.
This is an excellent exercise for relieving stress-related pain and discomfort. Simply lift the tongue and allow it to rest on top of the mouth behind the front teeth. Then gently open your mouth while relaxing the jaw muscles and inhale 5-10 times, then exhale.
Full Opening Goldfish Exercise
For people experiencing jaw stiffness, Goldfish exercises come in handy. They help stretch the jaw and increase mobility. For the full opening Goldfish exercise, you want to keep the tongue at the roof of the mouth with one finger on the chin and the other on your temporomandibular joint. Then drop the lower jaw. Repeat the exercise six times every day to complete a set.
Partial Opening Goldfish
For this exercise, you don’t drop the lower jaw completely, but halfway and close it again. Start by placing your tongue on the roof of the mouth with one finger in front of the ear where TMJ is located. Then place the pointer or middle finger on the chin, drop the jaw halfway, and close it. You may experience mild resistance. Repeat the exercise six times every day.
5. Apply Hot or Cold Compress
Hot and cold compresses help alleviate TMJ pain. However, knowing when to apply either is critical to enjoying the benefits. Cold compresses are most effective when relieving TMJ pain caused by injury. The cold reduces blood circulation to the inflamed jaw area and numbs the pain in the area.
On the other hand, a hot compress relieves stiffness, muscle pain, and tightness. It’s most effective when used for long periods, e.g., 20 minutes or more.
6. Wear a Mouthguard
These are hard (can be soft) plastic molds that fit over teeth to hold the jaw in the proper position. They relieve TMJ pain by:
Reducing Teeth Grinding
Teeth grinding results from stress and often occurs at night. Most people don’t realize they are grinding their teeth and often develop TMJ pain. Teeth grinding during the night means the jaw can’t rest, and the normal up-and-down function becomes side-to-side motion. This movement strains jaw structures, causing pain and inflammation. Mouth guards eliminate this movement and prevent teeth damage.
Correcting the Mouth Position
Mouthguards correct the mouth position, especially during sleep. When asleep, the mouth adapts a position that strains the structures around the temporomandibular joint, which can cause pain. The mouth guard enables the structures to rest and relax, alleviating pain and inflammation.
Minimizing Teeth Clenching
Teeth clenching creates tension around the face and jaw muscles and can sometimes damage tooth enamel and exhaust the muscle tissue. A mouth guard prevents clenching causing the facial muscles and the jaw joint to relax.
The doctor will prescribe stabilization or repositioning splints depending on the condition. The latter repositions the lower jaw, while stabilization splints prevent grinding and clenching of the teeth and ease pain by reducing overuse or extension of the jaw muscles.
7. Maintain Good Gut Health
TMJ headache is often connected to digestive problems. That’s because the disorder causes a bad bite which is the first step in digesting food properly. This means your gut health is compromised because digesting unchewed food is challenging.
Also, the body can’t absorb vital nutrients, affecting your general health. Avoiding specific foods can improve TMJ pain and your overall gut health. They include:
- Crunchy or hard foods
- Chewing gum
- Taking overly large bites of food
- Yelling or yawning
- Foods that take a long time to chew
8. Take Painkillers
If the pain becomes intolerable, buy over-the-counter medications. However, it’s best to visit a healthcare provider who can prescribe treatment depending on the symptoms. Some medicines that may help include:
- Muscle relaxants: Metaxalone and cyclobenzaprine are excellent examples of muscle relaxants to relieve TMJ headaches. However, they only provide short-term relief
- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs): Ibuprofen and naproxen are great for relieving TMJ pain. However, you must not use them for longer than three weeks
- Tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs): The drugs are ideal for people with chronic pain and are great for long-term use
Surgery is necessary when the headache is severe or persistent. The healthcare provider will recommend one of the following TMJ surgeries:
- Open-joint surgery: This procedure is more invasive as the doctor makes a longer incision along the ear to remove bone spurs, adhesions, and other growths causing TMJ headache
- Arthroscopy: Open-joint surgery is preferred because it has fewer risks. It involves inserting a small thin tube (called a cannula) into the joint space to wash out the joint and make a steroid injection that reduces pain
- Arthrocentesis: The procedure is another excellent alternative to open-joint surgery. It involves the insertion of tiny needles into the joint to spray fluid into the joint and remove any inflammatory byproducts and debris causing pain
So, How Can You Relieve TMJ Headaches?
There are many ways of relieving TMJ headaches. Non-invasive methods like massages, stretching and strengthening exercises, applying a hot or cold compress, managing stress, wearing a mouthguard, improving your gut health, and taking painkillers to help ease the pain. However, if the pain persists, your doctor may recommend more invasive remedies like open-joint surgery, arthrocentesis, or arthroscopy.