Headache from a TMJ Disorder

Diagnosis and Treatment of TMJ-Related Headache

What is TMJ?. NucleusMedicalArt.com/Getty Images

Do you suffer from pain when you chew, and does this coincide with your headaches? If so, your headaches could be related to a problem with your TMJ, a joint that allows you to eat and speak.

What is the TMJ?

The temporomandibular joint, or TMJ, is a joint that allows your jaw to slide and hinge properly so  you can chew, swallow, and speak efficiently. While the joint itself does not have any nerve connections, the surrounding muscles and joint capsule do -- and these structures are thought to be the primary source of pain in TMJ disorders.

Why Does TMJ Pain Occur?

Doctors are not entirely sure, as there are likely multiple sources of pain. Habits like grinding your teeth or lip biting may lead to inflammation of the joint capsule or spasm of the muscles surrounding the joint. Abnormal dental occlusion may also contribute to TMJ pain.

That being said, these potential causes are somewhat controversial, as abnormal dental occlusion and habits like teeth grinding are common in people without TMJ disorders.

Having an emotional disturbance, like anxiety, or experiencing large amounts of stress may also exacerbate TMJ disorders. In addition, osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis may cause TMJ pain.

What Does Having TMJ Pain Feel Like?

You may experience one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Jaw pain
  • Limited range of motion of the jaw
  • Headache
  • Neck pain or stiffness
  • Clicking sound heard when moving the joint/jaw
  • Difficulty opening your mouth

    How are TMJ Disorders Diagnosed?

    When diagnosing your TMJ disorder, your doctor will examine the following signs or symptoms:

    • pain is triggered by jaw movements and/or chewing of hard or tough food
    • reduced range of or irregular jaw opening
    • noise from one or both TMJs during jaw movements
    • tenderness of the joint capsule(s) of one or both TMJs

      Your doctor may also order imaging of your TMJ, like an xray or MRI, to confirm the diagnosis.

      What is a Headache from a TMJ Disorder?

      A headache caused by your TMJ disorder follows the pattern of your TMJ pain -- meaning when your TMJ disorder progresses, your headache worsens. Likewise, when your TMJ disorder improves, your headache improves. 

      In addition, if your headache is caused by your TMJ disorder, your head pain will be triggered or worsened by moving your jaw or when pressure is applied to the TMJ or the muscles surrounding it.

      Sometimes, doctor have a difficult time differentiating a headache related to a TMJ disorder from a tension-type headache -- or there can be an overlap between the two headache disorders.

      How are TMJ Disorders Treated?

      TMJ disorders and its associated headache can be challenging to treat and commonly involves multiple therapies. Your doctor may recommend over-the-counter and/or prescription medications like Tylenol, NSAIDs (i.e. Ibuprofen), and muscle relaxants.

      Other treatment options include physical therapy and cognitive-behavioral therapy. Relaxation techniques and stress management are also utilized in treating TMJ disorders. Finally, alternative therapies like hypnosis, acupuncture, and massage might be useful.

      Successful treatment of a TMJ disorder means that you have absence of pain, improved jaw function, and a normal quality of life.

      Bottom Line

      The good news is that the symptoms of TMJ disorders generally improve with time, even if you do not undergo therapy. That being said, talk with your doctor if you think you suffer from a TMJ disorder with or without an associated headache. He can confirm the diagnosis and help you formulate a treatment regimen that suits you and your lifestyle.


      Buescher JJ. Temporomandibular joint disorders. Am Fam Physician. 2007 Nov 15;76(10):1477-1482.

      Headache Classification Committee of the International Headache Society. "The International Classification of Headache Disorders: 3rd Edition (beta version)". Cephalalgia 2013;33(9):629-808.

      DISCLAIMER: The information in this site is for educational purposes only. It should not be used as a substitute for personal care by a licensed physician. Please see your doctor for diagnosis and treatment of any concerning symptoms or medical condition.

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