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When Headache Symptoms are Caused by TMJ

Woman with TMJ headache

TMJ, the temporomandibular joint, and headaches are complicated and complex. For many people, they can be extremely painful. In this blog post, we will break down what we know about the causes, symptoms, and treatment of TMJ headaches. We hope that this information will help you better understand your condition and find relief from your pain!

What causes TMJ headache?

TMJ headaches can be painful and debilitating. The cause can come from a few places, so let’s start by exploring the anatomy, and then we will discuss how TMJ can cause headaches.

Anatomy of the temporomandibular joint

TMJ anatomy Mayo Clinic

Source:  Mayo Clinic

The temporomandibular joint (TMJ) is a small joint in front of the ear where the skull and lower jaw meet. The TMJ allows us to move our lower jaw up and down and side to side, which is essential for talking, eating, and yawning. The TMJ is made up of the following parts:

  • The temporal bone: This is the bone in front of the ear.
  • The mandible: This is the lower jawbone.
  • The articular disk is a small, cushion-like disc that sits between the temporal bone and mandible.
  • The muscles and ligaments connect the temporal bone, mandible, and articular disk, allowing the TMJ to move.

The trigeminal nerve also plays an important role in TMJ pain and TMD (temporomandibular disorders).  The trigeminal nerve controls the muscles that move the jaw and also sense pain in the head and neck.  

It is also important to note that the trigeminal nerve is connected to our sympathetic nervous system, or our “flight or fight” response.  This system is our stress response.  Chronic stress results in the exhaustion of the sympathetic nervous system.

TMJ disorders and jaw pain

Several disorders can cause TMJ pain. Some common TMJ disorders include:

Arthritis:  Osteoarthritis is a degenerative disease that causes cartilage deterioration that cushions the joints’ bones. Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease that causes inflammation of the joints.

Jaw clenching (Bruxism) and teeth grinding: This condition can be caused by stress or anxiety. It can also be caused by misaligned teeth, an abnormal bite, or teeth that are missing or crooked.

Trauma: A blow to the face or head can cause damage to the TMJ.

Stress: Stress can cause the muscles around the TMJ to tighten, which can lead to pain.

TMJ headaches are caused by TMJ dysfunction

TMJ Migraine Headaches

The TMJ is a small joint with a lot of moving parts. It moves up and down, forward and backward, and side to side. Its job is to chew food and is the first step in digestion. When these parts are not working correctly, it can lead to pain and headaches.

The role of the trigeminal nerve

The trigeminal nerve plays a vital role in TMJ headaches because it is responsible for sensing pain and pressure in the head and face. Therefore, when the TMJ is not functioning correctly, the trigeminal nerve can irritate and cause pain.

Trigeminal neuralgia has also been shown to be associated with TMJ due to the proximity of the joint and irritation due to TMJ dysfunction.

The role of the cervical spine

Significant research on the jaw and the cervical spine can also contribute to repeated TMJ dysfunction and pain. The TMJ and the cervical spine share nerve innervation, and they also share functional components.

A typical presentation of TMJ dysfunction includes our society’s common forward head posture. Computer use, phone use, and deskwork all contribute to the long-term adaptation of the tissue to this posture. But, remember, posture is only a picture of how your body is functioning.

A forward head posture and forward rolled shoulders commonly seen means that the muscles and ligaments that hold us upright have become weak. As the body adapts, other muscles will become shortened and weak. Studies show this imbalance creates instability and pain in the cervical spine and jaw.

TMJ Headache Symptoms

TMJ headaches may be described as migraine or tension headaches and are accompanied by many other common symptoms. However, these symptoms can also indicate a more severe problem and should always be evaluated by a doctor.

Common symptoms associated with TMJ headaches include:

  • Clicking or popping: an indication that the joint is dysfunctional
  • Ear pain: This can be caused by the trigeminal nerve being irritated.
  • Jaw pain: This can be caused by the muscles around the TMJ being tight, or the joint itself being inflamed.
  • Facial pain: This can be caused by tight muscles around the TMJ or the inflamed joint.
  • Neck pain: This can be caused by the tight forces around the TMJ or the inflamed joint.
  • Dizziness: This can be caused by the trigeminal nerve being irritated.
  • Ringing in the ears: This can be caused by an irritated trigeminal nerve.
  • Nausea: This can be caused by the trigeminal nerve being irritated.

TMJ headaches can be debilitating and cause a lot of pain. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, it is essential to see a doctor so they can properly diagnose and treat your condition.

Treatment for TMJ Headaches

We can see how treatment might make sense now that we understand where TMJ headaches come from. TMJ specialists can evaluate and treat TMJ disorders. Pain relief for temporomandibular joint disease varies.

Dental and orthodontic treatment

Dental and orthodontic treatments are the most common treatments for TMJ headaches. This can be as simple as getting braces or a night guard to prevent teeth from grinding.

Stress management


Recall that the trigeminal nerve aids in the “fight or flight” response. This is otherwise known as a “stress response.” Therefore, a lot of stress could result in overactive muscle clenching or bruxism, which creates pain and irritation. Conversely, relaxation techniques such as breathing exercises stimulate the vagus nerve and reduce stress.

Physical therapy and chiropractic care

Many forms of physical therapy and chiropractic care can be used to treat TMJ headaches. In addition, manual treatments such as trigger point release, myofascial release, and cranial-sacral therapy release muscle tension and improve mobility in the cervical spine.


Acupuncture is another treatment that can be used to treat TMJ headaches. Acupuncture is effective in reducing pain and inflammation.

Home exercises

A promising study that evaluated the efficacy of a home exercise program for TMJ included self-massage and stretching, strengthening, and mobility work for the jaw and neck.


Magnesium can help with relaxing the muscles and also help to manage stress.  It is one of many natural pain relief options.


Botox is a treatment often used for cosmetic purposes, but it can also be used to treat TMJ headaches. Botox works by temporarily paralyzing the muscles that are causing pain.


Surgery is a last resort for TMJ headaches and should only be considered after all other treatment options have been exhausted.


If you are experiencing any of the symptoms listed above, please seek medical attention. Many treatment options are available for TMJ disorders and headache pain, and early diagnosis and treatment usually lead to better outcomes. We hope this information has been helpful, and we encourage you to talk to your doctor if you have any questions or concerns about TMJ disorders or headache pain.

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This blog is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein should not be used to diagnose or treat any health condition or disease without consulting with a qualified healthcare provider.