According to Migraine and Headache Australia, between 36-87% of Australians experience headaches. The World Health Organisation notes that headaches are most common in those between 20-50 years. Headaches are common with those with temporomandibular joint (TMJ) problems, between 48-77% of people with TMJ will experience headaches.
TMJ headaches can be difficult to diagnose as healthcare professionals, and sufferers often overlook jaw issues. Although more research is emerging, it is still a growing area of interest. Due to modern society's increased stress and anxiety, more people are suffering from TMJ issues, and consequently TMJ headaches.
Read on to understand what you should know about TMJ headaches; the risk factors, treatment options and expected recovery time.
What is a TMJ headache?
A temporomandibular joint headache describes any pain around the head region caused by jaw issues. As the jawbone is connected to the skull through the TMJ, any problems (e.g. muscular tightness, clenching) can cause pain to travel to the head.
What are the symptoms of TMJ headaches?
The symptoms of a typical TMJ headache include a tight and dull ache, most commonly on one side of the head. The headache is usually on the side with other jaw-related problems, including jaw "clicking" and restricted jaw movement with tight or painful muscles.
Common symptoms of TMJ headaches
Ear pain and ringing in the ear
Clicking sound during mouth opening or closing
A tight jaw or facial muscles
Limited movement of the jaw
What causes TMJ headaches?
Temporomandibular joing headaches are caused by dysfunction or problems of TMJ or jaw joint. This can include inflammatory issues, tight muscles, weakness, or potentially following an injury to the TMJ.
Common causes of TMJ headaches
Sports that increase the risk of TMJ headaches
Sports that cause direct blows to the TMJ can result in joint dysfunction. Additionally, mouth guard overuse may also strain the jaw resulting in various joint problems leading to TMJ headaches in the long run.
How are TMJ headaches diagnosed?
Having a TMJ headache can be debilitating. TMJ headaches tend to get confused with classic tension headaches or other types of migraines. It is essential to have your jaw assessed as soon as possible to prevent severe complications, such as jaw locking and intense headaches.
One of the most trusted solutions is a comprehensive assessment with a physiotherapist. Physiotherapists are highly qualified professionals, experts in diagnosing joint disorders such as TMJ headaches.
Your physiotherapy assessment will begin with a mini-interview. Your physiotherapist will ask you vital questions related to your medical history and lifestyle. Take this time to discuss all relevant issues about your jaw pain and other symptoms.
After establishing a background of your condition, your physiotherapist will perform a physical evaluation of your TMJ joint and vital muscles of the head and neck to identify the root cause of your pain.
Your physiotherapist will then create a specific treatment plan for you and will guide you through your recovery.
This will also include:
A specific treatment plan
Targeted goals and a timeline for your recovery
Home exercise programs to aid your treatment
Guidelines to gradually return to your normal activities.
How are TMJ headaches treated?
Having a TMJ headache can be excruciating and may limit your ability to chew and talk normally. Pain medications may offer short-term relief, but headaches and discomfort will continue to occur unless you address the dysfunction in the TMJ.
There are several options when it comes to treating TMJ headaches. One of the more common and the treatment option referred to by Australian GPs the most frequently is physiotherapy.
Physiotherapists routinely encounter headaches caused by musculoskeletal dysfunctions like TMJ headaches. They are in the best position to give quality care and regain your normal function through rehabilitation.
Your treatment will focus on decreasing your pain, correcting TMJ impairments and improving the joint’s mobility to restore the natural movement of your jaw.
Depending on the severity of your TMJ headache, a physiotherapist may provide you with a combination of the following types of treatments:
Soft tissue Mobilisation - Techniques used to reduce muscle spasm and promote muscle relaxation.
Myofascial Release - A specialised muscle release technique that will help reduce pain and muscle stiffness if myofasical pain is suspected.
Joint Mobilisation Techniques - Hands-on therapy that will alleviate stiffness in the TMJ.
Manual Therapy - Specialised treatment to improve your joint mobility, increase range of motion and reduce pain.
Postural Exercises - Includes exercises designed to improve your posture and reduce tension of the head and neck.
Therapeutic Exercises - Involves corrective exercises to promote natural movement of the TMJ.
Advice and Education - Expert guidance to maximise your recovery and prevent onset of headaches caused by TMJ dysfunction.
A typical physiotherapy session with your local physiotherapist will last anywhere between 30-60 minutes. It is not uncommon for patients to feel the benefits in just one session.
Next step - Creating a treatment plan made for you
After your initial evaluation, your physiotherapist will create a detailed treatment program for you to maximise your recovery.
Self-care for TMJ headaches
If you think you have a TMJ headache, here are the best things you can do and avoid.
Things to do:
Most TMJ problems involve inflammation and swelling in the area. Sufficient rest can help your body recover.
- Cut your food into small pieces.
Eat your food in smaller pieces to prevent straining your jaw muscles.
- Practice decent posture
Improper posture of the shoulders and neck can cause stress on the TMJ, which may aggravate your symptoms.
Things to avoid:
Excessive yawning puts your TMJ under a lot of stress by reaching its end range of motion suddenly.
2.Avoid hard or chewy foods.
Hard foods can take a lot of effort to chew and may cause increased stress on your jaw muscles.
Do I need a specialist or surgery?
Treatment of TMJ headaches will focus on treating the dysfunctions of your jaw. Dentists and physiotherapists are the most capable professionals in delivering conservative care for patients with TMJ problems.
Orthotic devices may be prescribed for you to wear to align your jaw and prevent other complications while your TMJ is healing.
Your physician may also prescribe you antidepressant medications to relieve your stress and tension.
Supporting diagnostic procedures can be done to check the structures of the TMJ.
MRI - Allows scanning of the soft tissue structures of your jaw
CT Scan - Allows scanning for possible osseous changes around the TMJ
X-ray - Can check for dental problems that may cause your symptoms
Your GP may prescribe you anti-inflammatory medications to manage your pain and other symptoms.
Surgery is rarely done, and the standard treatment of TMJ headaches is focused on conservative management of the symptoms and joint dysfunction.
What is the recovery time / prognosis for TMJ headaches?
Ultimately, recovery from TMJ headaches is dependent on being proactive and seeking professional treatment along with the severity of your headache.
Recovery from TMJ headaches can take anywhere from a few days up to 3 weeks in mild cases. However, if left untreated, some cases can take months up to a year.
Physiotherapy can improve the overall outcome of patients who are suffering from TMJ headaches. In addition, joint dysfunctions brought about by muscle imbalance can be addressed by your physiotherapists.
Can TMJ headaches be prevented?
The tips below can help you prevent having TMJ headaches. They will also guide you through your recovery if you are currently suffering from headaches.
Observe proper posture - Always keep your shoulders down and back and your head and neck aligned to your torso. Excessive forward head posture creates unnecessary stress on your neck muscles which affects your TMJ.
Don’t overuse your jaw muscles – Avoid hard and chewy food.
Manage your stress – Teeth grinding and jaw clenching are behaviours that are highly related to stress.
Avoid unnecessary jaw movements – Excessive yawning causes your TMJ to move to its end range and may overstretch soft tissue structures around your jaw.
Outlook and the main takeaways
A TMJ headache is a direct result of TMJ dysfunctions. Headaches and discomfort in your jaw area are usually signs of underlying issues of your TMJ. It is best to catch these symptoms early and start treating them immediately to prevent complications.
Book a consultation with a physiotherapist today and start your journey to recovery!
Anatomy of the TMJ
The TMJ consists of articulation of the mandible and the temporal bone of your skull.
The articular joint surfaces of these bones are separated by an articular disk which provides smooth rolling and gliding of the joint surfaces. The articular bones are covered with fibrocartilage to protect their surface from friction.
The stability of the TMJ largely depends on the muscles and the three ligaments that support it.
Problems with any of the structures associated with the TMJ can cause joint dysfunction which may lead to TMJ headaches.