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How to Tell if Your Headaches are a Jaw Issue

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How to Tell if Your Headaches are a Jaw Issue

Dec 19, 2018

If you’re prone to chronic headaches, it could be a jaw issue. Dr. Gary Lowder is a professor and practicing dentist at the University of Utah School of Dentistry. He talks about how tension in your jaw muscles and grinding your teeth can cause severe headaches and what a dentist can do to treat it.

Episode Transcript

Interviewer: How do I know if my headache is caused by a mouth-jaw issue? That's next on The Scope.

Announcer: Health information from expects, supported by research. From University of Utah Health, this is

Interviewer: Dr. Gary Lowder is a practicing dentist and a professor, both at the University of Utah School of Dentistry. He's got 30 years of TMJ experience and he's seen a lot of cases of people coming in with headaches asking, "Is this a mouth-jaw issue?" Headaches are so common nowadays and can be caused by so many different things, how do you know if it's caused by a mouth-jaw issue? Is there any kind of one-tell that you look for?

Dr. Lowder: Well first of all, in my practice I like to know if a patient has been to their physician or their ENT to find out if there's any underlying infection that might be contributing to the headaches. A lot of patients will say that they have migraines, but in fact they're really just severe muscle tension-type headaches.

So what we do is we will often use a technique called Spray and Stretch, where we use a vapocoolant spray on the muscle areas of the face to see if there is a diminishing of the pain. If we can get headache to respond to that kind of a test, then it usually indicates that it could be related more to muscle irritability, muscle tension, or another term is called Trismus, and that gives me encouragement that this is something that can be treated because it's more of a muscle tension-type headache than a true migraine-type headache.

Interviewer: And we're talking about tense muscles in the jaw and the mouth area?

Dr. Lowder: Yes.

Interviewer: Does that cover the neck area as well what you do, or is that different?

Dr. Lowder: It also covers the neck area. A simple test to know why is if you look up toward the ceiling and tap your teeth together, the bite will feel different that if you look down toward the floor and tap your teeth together. And the neck muscles actually determine head position.

If the head position is altered by tension in those muscles, it can alter your bite, which in term can trigger clenching and/or bruxism, and you can either get headaches toward the end of the day or when awakening in the morning. Often morning headaches are due to the fact that the individual is clenching their teeth throughout the night.

Another sign that could help you understand if you're clenching or grinding is look at your teeth in the mirror and see if you see any signs of wear. The canine teeth or the cuspids just to the sides of the incisors, should have nice points on them. If those points are missing and they're flattened, that means that you have been doing some grinding and abrading of your tooth structure and it can be a factor in headaches.

Again, not all headaches are related to teeth and occlusion, but if it's been ruled out that you have migraines or some other systemic reason for a headache, then we need to suspect that maybe the occlusion is a factor.

Interviewer: So what are some common issues that might be causing my headaches? So TMJ would be one of them, grinding your teeth sounds like another. Are there any other ones?

Dr. Lowder: Well, stress is probably the number one culprit. And stress happens for good reasons and negative reasons. For instance, Christmas can be very stressful to some people, and so can birthdays and weddings. And so a promotion at work, increased responsibilities, can cause us to start grinding or clenching our teeth, and that usually can create tension-type headaches over time.

Interviewer: What can I do about it if I have headaches that are being caused by my muscles and my jaws and my mouth?

Dr. Lowder: I'd like to say, "Just take a deep breath and relax," but that doesn't always work. I think it is good though to evaluate the stress in your life, both physical and emotional stress and determine if there's a more healthy way to deal with them. Stress management counseling is a good idea. Considering your daily activities, is there anything that you're doing that puts more strain on the muscles of your neck and shoulders than the body is able to tolerate?

The position you're in, if you're at a computer all day, can make a difference in how those muscles feel, which can in turn, create muscle tension-type headaches. Physical therapy is beneficial in those cases, ice packs, good quality exercises, routines that can help strengthen those muscles are also beneficial.

If you feel like you're clenching or grinding your teeth and doing it habitually or waking up having these symptoms, some form of protective mouth wear can be beneficial. And those are called dental splints or mouth guard that helps to take the stress off of the teeth and distribute it over the plastic, protecting the teeth and relaxing the muscles associated with your jaw.

Interviewer: That's interesting. So a lot of headaches can start from there but it sounds like there's some hope for people if that's where their headaches are starting.

Dr. Lowder: There definitely is. It's worth investigating because you don't have to suffer with a headache if it's coming from muscle tension in that area. It's also important to know that in some cases of temporal-mandibular disorder, there is clicking and popping that occurs inside the joints just in front of the ear. If it's non-painful we often do not treat that, it's very common. And if it's non-painful or if it doesn't limit your jaw function, then we don't usually treat it. When it becomes painful then the patient should seek help to try and alleviate the problem as soon as possible so that further breakdown in the form of osteoarthritic remodeling isn't occurring.

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updated: December 19, 2018
originally published: May 27, 2015