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Could TMJ Be Causing Your Headache?

Ever found yourself clenching your jaw as a reaction to stress? You’re not alone (you’re probably not even the only person doing it in your office right now). But if you’re feeling pain, you could be one of the 10 million Americans whose jaw clenching could be TMJ, or temporomandibular joint and muscle disorders, which collectively cause pain and dysfunction in the jaw joint and the muscles that control jaw movement.

The temporomandibular joint is what connects your jaw to your skull on each side of your face. It acts like a hinge, and if you move your jaw around, you can feel it moving. In most cases, scientists don’t know what exactly causes TMJ; it could be trauma, like a dislocated jaw, or it could be something as simple as repeated clenching.

Whatever the cause, TMJ can be seriously uncomfortable. Not only can the condition cause jaw pain, but it can lead to aches in and around your ears, neck, face, and shoulders; difficulty chewing or pain while chewing; facial swelling; clicking or popping sounds in the jaw; and locking of the jaw joint, which can make it difficult to open or close your mouth.

Not surprisingly, all this pressure and tension in your face can lead to headaches, too. When the muscles that surround your temporomandibular joint—underneath the jaw and in the cheeks, and on the top and sides of the head—tighten as a result of grinding or clenching your teeth, that muscle pain can travel to the top of the skull, causing headaches or even migraines. Typically, you’ll feel a dull, aching pain below one or both ears, but it may expand to your temples, toward the middle of your face, or across the top and front of your skull.

The good news: If your doctor diagnoses you with TMJ, they’ll likely suggest a number of remedies you can do right at home, such as:

Apply heat. Heat can help relieve pain in stiff joints. Try a damp washcloth heated in the microwave, or buy heat packs at the store.                                   

But chill yourself out. If stress is causing your jaw tension, you can try out some relaxation techniques. Flower-gazing meditation is an easy way to get into meditating, and blue-dot meditation is a good way to remind yourself to take a breath and be more mindful wherever you are. Your doctor can also recommend a therapist who can teach you more techniques.

Don’t chew gum. Swap in mints instead.

Eat softer foods. Hard or crunchy foods will not help with your jaw pain. But that doesn’t mean your diet has to be boring! Swap your morning cereal for oatmeal or buttermilk pancakes, replace your sandwich with shakshuka, and try broccoli-Swiss soup for dinner.

If those don’t work, your doctor may suggest other treatments, like jaw exercises or a splint or night guard. These prevent your upper and lower teeth from coming together, which can correct your bite and reduce your clenching.

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