If you have frequent migraine headaches, you might be surprised to learn that your jaw could be to blame.
The temporomandibular joint (TMJ) connects your head and the side of your jaw. Temporomandibular disorders (TMD)—also called TMJ disorders—refer to a collection of disorders that cause symptoms like pain and clicking in the joint and surrounding areas.
TMJ disorders can sometimes cause or worsen migraines (recurring headaches that cause throbbing or pulsing pain). They can be a trigger for migraine pain due to muscle tightening.
This article discusses how TMJ leads to headaches. It also explains how you can get TMJ headache and jaw pain relief at home and with a specialist’s help.
How TMJ Causes Headaches
The temporomandibular joint allows you to chew and talk. You can feel your TMJs (one on each side of your head) when you put your hands behind your ears and open your mouth.
People with TMJ disorders experience a range of symptoms that affect the muscles, jaw, and nerves. These may include:
- Pain, tenderness, and inflammation in the face, jaw, and neck
- Limited movement in the jaw and neck (“lockjaw”)
- Clicking or popping sensations in the jaw
- A mismatch between the upper and lower teeth when closing the jaw
- Stiff jaw muscles
- Shoulder pain
- Ringing in the ears
- Hearing loss
- Teeth clenching or grinding
These symptoms may occur on both sides of the face and neck or only on one side. They may make it hard to speak or eat.
The exact cause of TMJ disorders is unknown, but some potential causes may include:
- Hormonal imbalances or changes
- Injury to the jaw
- Poor posture
- Increased sensitivity to pain
Many of the triggers of migraine headaches, such as stress and hormonal changes, can also trigger TMJ symptoms. TMJ symptoms may occur at the same time as a tension headache (a common type of headache, often associated with muscle tightness) or migraine. Sometimes, one can trigger the other or make the pain worse.
The TMJ connects your neck to your head. When you tense up the chewing muscles or jaw, the pain often starts in that area and spreads to your cheeks. The pain and tension can ultimately spread to the top of your head, causing a TMJ headache.
Many people describe TMJ headaches as a shooting, traveling pain. It might get worse when you try to chew or talk. It might also involve more parts of your body—such as your shoulders or ears—than other kinds of migraine headaches.
How Common Is TMJ?
Around 11 to 12 million people in the U.S. experience TMJ pain. TMJ disorders are twice as common in women as in men.
Specialists Who Can Help
Because TMJ disorders and migraines have a range of potential causes, it might be necessary to see more than one specialist in hopes of diagnosis and treatment. Talk to your primary healthcare provider (PCP) about a referral for TMJ symptoms and/or migraines.
Here are some of the specialists who might be able to help you with TMJ headaches.
With a physical exam, imaging tests, and an assessment of your medical history, a neurologist can diagnose your migraines accurately. They can also help rule out any other possible medical conditions that could be causing your TMD symptoms and/or headaches.
A neurologist can also help you pinpoint and avoid possible triggers, in addition to prescribing medication and suggesting exercises and behavioral changes.
Some clinicians believe that bruxism (teeth clenching) and misalignment of the teeth and jaw could be partly to blame for TMD.
Using X-rays and other diagnostic testing tools, a dentist can evaluate your jaw and teeth for signs of any injury or disc displacement. To treat your symptoms, a dentist may suggest jaw exercises, medications, a night plate or bite guard, or orthodontic treatment. In severe cases, they may also refer you to an oral surgeon.
Some research suggests that regular chiropractic care can help with TMJ headaches and pain. A chiropractor can perform manual adjustments to release tension in your jaw, neck, and shoulders.
A chiropractor is a complementary medicine professional who focuses on the spine and spinal manipulation to address health concerns, especially pain in the back and neck.
To treat TMJ disorder, a physical therapist will begin with an assessment. They will review your medical history and symptoms, physically examine your jaw, and evaluate your posture and the range of motion in your jaw, neck, or both.
Based on their evaluation, a physical therapist can treat your symptoms with methods such as heat or ice application, massage, postural instruction, TMJ mobilizations, and exercises.
Some research suggests that therapeutic ultrasound, when used by a physical therapist in conjunction with home exercises, can lessen pain and improve mobility in people with TMD.
Psychiatrist or Psychologist
Many people with TMD have co-occurring mental health disorders, such as anxiety and depression. Because stress is a common trigger for TMJ headaches, a psychiatrist or psychologist may be able to help treat the underlying causes of your symptoms.
Some clinicians might prescribe anti-anxiety medications, antidepressants, or other drugs that can help with co-occurring mental health conditions.
Others may assess your patterns of tension with biofeedback—a technique that uses sensors to monitor your heart rate, breathing, and muscle contractions. This can help you learn to stop yourself from tensing the muscles in your jaw.
Botox for Migraines
Botox (botulinum toxin type A) is injected into the muscles in small amounts to make them relax. Botox has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the treatment of chronic migraines (defined as headaches on 15 or more days per month). It’s not FDA-approved for the treatment of TMD.
Self-Care and Conservative Treatment
Many TMJ headaches and other TMD symptoms can be effectively managed without medical intervention. Here are some of the ways you can treat or prevent your symptoms at home.
Because stress is a common trigger for both TMD and migraines, it’s important to practice self-care with ongoing stress management techniques. These might include:
- Breathing exercises
- Mindfulness and relaxation techniques, such as meditation
- Soothing hobbies, such as adult coloring books
- Getting enough sleep
Making some simple changes in your everyday behavior and habits can help to ease TMJ headache symptoms. Some of these minor changes can include:
- Eating softer foods
- Gently exercising the jaw
- Using hot or cold compresses
- Relaxing the jaw muscles throughout the jaw
There are also some habits you should avoid to prevent TMJ headaches, including:
- Chewing gum
- Clenching your jaw
- Chewing on pens and other writing utensils
- Biting your nails
Your doctor may prescribe or recommend certain medications to alleviate pain, inflammation, muscle spasms, and other symptoms of TMJ migraines.
Over-the-counter (OTC) medications, including nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like Advil (ibuprofen), can also help with temporary pain relief.
Some essential oils might be applied topically (on the skin) to help with TMJ migraine pain management. Peppermint oil, for example, has potential pain-relieving properties. Frankincense oil may reduce inflammation, while lavender oil may help with muscle tension.
It’s important that you dilute essential oils in a carrier oil (such as coconut oil) before applying them to your skin or they may cause irritation. Discuss their use with your dentist or healthcare provider.
There is limited evidence for the overall effectiveness of essential oils, but they may provide temporary pain relief.
Temporomandibular disorders (TMD) refer to a collection of conditions related to the temporomandibular joint (TMJ), which connects the head to the jaw.
TMJ disorders cause pain, tenderness, and other symptoms (such as clicking and popping) in the chewing muscles, jaw, neck, shoulders, head, and surrounding areas. They can also trigger migraine headaches and chronic facial pain.
Specialists that can help with TMJ headaches may include neurologists, dentists, chiropractors, physical therapists, and mental health therapists. At-home treatments for TMJ headaches can include over-the-counter medications, behavioral changes, and stress management techniques.
A Word From Verywell
TMJ headaches and related symptoms can be frustrating, especially if they become chronic or severe. It’s important to avoid TMJ flare-ups as much as possible through behavioral changes and self-care techniques. Try to manage your stress. If needed, see a specialist for your TMJ and migraine pain.
Frequently Asked Questions
Do TMJ migraines go away on their own?
TMJ migraines often go away on their own, without any medical intervention. TMJ headaches and flare-ups may last just a few hours or a few days. But they might become chronic, especially during times of stress or illness.
What works best for jaw pain and headaches?
Short-term relief for jaw pain and headaches can include relaxation techniques, medications (such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs), using hot or cold compresses, and massage.
In the long term, it’s also important to identify and avoid or treat headache triggers. These can include lack of sleep, light and sound, certain foods and medications, poor posture, chewing gum, and stress, among others.
How do dentists identify TMJ disorder?
Dentists can perform a dental examination, including imaging tests such as X-rays, to identify signs of TMJ disorder. Their assessment might point to certain potential causes of TMJ pain. These might include evidence of teeth grinding or clenching, signs of injury, dislocation, or misalignment.