Nearly everyone on occasion experiences a throbbing headache that interferes with concentration at work or school, or saps the joy from the day.
But sometimes the source of that headache can be surprising. For many people, the pain that emanates from the head can be traced back to their teeth, their bite relationship and the alignment of the lower jaw.
“Pain doesn’t happen randomly or because of bad luck,” says Dr. Fred Abeles, author of the book “Break Away: The New Method for Treating Chronic Headaches, Migraines and TMJ Without Medication” (www.FredAbeles.com).
“There’s a cause and effect to almost everything in the human body.”
With many headaches, Abeles says, the cause is the temporomandibular joint, or TMJ, the place at the front of the ear where the lower jaw and the temporal bone on the side of the head meet.
Sometimes the bite and the lower jaw are out of alignment, putting additional strain on muscles, which leads to the headaches. And for many, TMJ headaches aren’t going away because people try to mask the pain with medication rather than correct the underlying cause, Abeles says.
But how do you know a headache is caused by TMJ? Abeles says these are some of the warning signs.
Your jaw clicks or pops. Any joint in your body should work silently and seamlessly, Abeles says. If your jaw clicks or pops when you open or close it, it’s a clear sign that the lower half of the joint is not in the proper position. Even if the popping and clicking don’t produce pain, he says, the muscles that have to support and stabilize the joint become fatigued and will produce pain.
Your bite feels off. The TMJ is the only joint in the human body that has 28 teeth stuck between the opening and closing motion of the joint to complicate things, Abeles says. Every other joint is completely controlled by muscles, and the position of the joint, its movement and range of motion are mediated by muscle.
The TMJ’s position is dictated by where our teeth come together in our bite. So if your bite feels off or your teeth don’t fit together well, there’s a good chance your TMJ joints are off, too.
You have pain around your forehead, temples, back of head or radiating down your neck. Ninety percent of pain comes from muscle, Abeles says. If your muscles are not functioning well because of fatigue from supporting one or both of your TMJ joints in an improper position, they produce pain. It’s much like when you exercise or work hard and feel muscle pain later, he says. The only difference is that TMJ is more subtle and chronic.
You have forward head posture. Our heads are supposed to be centered over our shoulders. If yours is in front of your shoulders when you are upright, you have “forward head posture.” That relates to your bite and your airway. The human head weighs about eight to 10 pounds. The farther forward it is off the center axis, the more strain it places on neck muscles and vertebrae.
You snore. Snoring is a red flag that respiration during sleep is disturbed, Abeles says. Several factors can lead to snoring, but one of the most important is the position of the lower jaw, he says. If your lower jaw is a little too far back, then the tongue is farther back as well.
“If the tongue is slightly farther back than optimal it vibrates against our soft palate, closes off our airway and we snore,” Abeles says. The snoring doesn’t cause the headache, he says, but it could be a sign the lower jaw is too far back. As a result, the muscles that support the jaw in an improper position produce the headache pain.
—Dr. Fred Abeles is the Clinical Instructor and Regional Director for the Las Vegas Institute for Advanced Dental Studies. Abeles has been featured on NBC and CBS, consults with leading dental manufacturers on the development of new dental products, been on the cover of the profession’s biggest magazines and instructed dentists throughout the United States and Canada on state-of-the-art techniques for treating headaches and temporomandibular joint dysfunction.