A TMJ headache is a headache resulting from a malfunction of the temporomandibular joint (TMJ). The temporomandibular joint, which is a part of the jaw found just in front of the ears, is a complicated joint subject to several disorders. A TMJ headache can be the result of muscle tension resulting from incorrectly aligned temporomandibular joints, pinched nerves within the joints, or referred pain from the temporomandibular joints.
Migraines are similar to, and sometimes mistaken for, TMJ headaches. Like a migraine, a headache resulting from a temporomandibular joint disorder may be mild or intense, with pain affecting both sides of the head. TMJ headaches are different from migraines in that they do not exhibit the classic migraine symptoms of vision disturbances and aromatic triggers.
The temporomandibular joint is one of the most complicated joints in the body. The two joints, one on each side of the head, are ball-and-socket type joints. The joints connect the movable jaw bone, or mandible, to the fixed temporal bones at the sides of the head. Each temporomandibular joint contains a soft disc that provides cushioning between the mandible and temporal bone. Any damage or malfunction to this joint or the disc is considered a temporomandibular disorder and can cause a TMJ headache.
There are several causes of temporomandibular joint disorders, although the specific cause is sometimes unknown. A direct blow to the head can damage the temporomandibular joints. Incorrect alignment of the teeth and jaw also can cause wear and, as a result, dysfunction of the joint. The disorder also may occur as a result of another condition, such as rheumatic arthritis.
TMJ headaches may be difficult to diagnose. There are no standardized tests to diagnose temporomandibular joint disorder or the resultant headaches. Other problems, such as ear or sinus infections, may need to be ruled out first. A dentist will perform a detailed examination and may order imaging studies.
Treatment of TMJ headaches varies widely. The headaches may spontaneously disappear, or simple lifestyle changes may limit their occurrence. Avoiding sticky food, chewing gum or yawning may help prevent a TMJ headache. Minimizing stressful situations, which can cause clenching of the jaw, may help stop the headaches. Short-term nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen or naproxen, may provide relief.
A more aggressive treatment is sometimes needed to manage TMJ headaches. A doctor may order prescription muscle relaxants or pain medication. Temporomandibular joint disorders are sometimes treated with injections of corticosteroid shots into the joint. Customized bite guards can help alignment, but they also can sometimes make the pain worse. In severe cases, corrective surgery of the joint may be required.