What Sets a TMJ Headache Apart

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You've had a stressful day when it hits: the telltale pain that radiates from your neck and head, only preceded by an ongoing stiffness in your jaw. Pain from the temporomandibular joint (TMJ) can be easily mistaken for a common headache, mostly because the symptoms are so similar. But there are a few key differences that set TMJ headache apart from your garden-variety tension headache.

By accurately identifying the type of pain you're experiencing, you can find relief before the sensation becomes unbearable.

TMJ Pain or Headache?

A study by the University at Buffalo School of Dental Medicine found that headaches related to TMJ disorder (TMJD) are often misdiagnosed as tension headaches. Eighty-two of percent of female cases and 17 percent of males cases that were included in this study had symptoms associated with TMJD. Thirty-one percent were reported to have tension associated headaches by the research examiners. Health care providers might inaccurately diagnose TMJ-related pain as a regular stress-induced headache when they could in fact be coming from a much more preventable source.

By tracking your symptoms, you can note the differences between both types of pain, address the right cause and find lasting relief more quickly. Usually, according to Mayo Clinic, pain radiating from the TMJ comes with:

  • A crackling or grinding sound when you move your jaw.
  • Stiffness in the joint, making it difficult to open and close your mouth.
  • Facial tenderness and pain.
  • Earaches.

At the same time, it's unlikely that headaches originating from TMJD would cause symptoms that severe headache and migraines share: nausea, sensitivity to light or sound and fatigue, for instance. A TMJ headache can, however, trigger a migraine for those who are susceptible to them – another reason why addressing TMJ pain is so vital to your overall health.

How to Cope with It

The best way to cope with TMJ pain and head off a full-blown migraine is to address the pain right at the source. You can actually prevent some of the symptoms by avoiding unnecessary use of the jaw, and participating in a few easy stress-relieving exercises. Here are the best ways to prevent TMJ headache and deal with its associated pain.

  • Opt for mints or mouthwash. If you're a frequent gum-chewer, it might be time to eliminate the habit; overuse of the jaw muscles can inflame the TMJ, resulting in pain and stiffness. If you want to keep your breath fresh, sucking on a mint or swishing with a mouthwash like Colgate Total® Advanced Pro-Shield Mouthwash can help remove bad breath germs and put less stress on your jaw.
  • Curb anxiety at its source. Stress is a common trigger for TMJ-related pain because most people tend to tense their jaw when under tight deadlines, dealing with family drama or otherwise in an uncomfortable situation. Participating in just a half-hour of exercise each day, taking short breaks from stressful work or even taking a yoga class can help you relax naturally on your own.
  • Massage your jaw. Gently kneading the TMJ can help increase blood flow to the area, allowing you to do away with most of the pain and inflammation. Place your first three fingers on the TMJ (you'll find it about three inches back from the corner of your mouth) and press down on the joint, massaging in a circular motion. Continue until the area desensitizes and you notice relief.
  • Take an over-the-counter (OTC) pain reliever. When you discover your jaw beginning to become tender or stiff, an OTC NSAID pain reliever can reduce inflammation quickly before it becomes more problematic. Just remember to follow package and dosing instructions if you choose to take medication to help you cope.

The stiffness your feel in your jaw isn't a minor problem; it can literally become a pain in the neck if it goes untreated. By becoming diligent about noticing the signs of a TMJ headache and addressing the symptoms head-on, you can make sure stiffness and tenderness doesn't become a chronic issue.