How to tell if your jaw is contributing to your headaches

Headaches are one of the most common and least treated musculoskeletal pains in Australia, with 87% of us experiencing head pain each year. Of this, 16% experienced migraine, with debilitating pain and neural symptoms. Only 23% of these sought treatment (that’s 3% of the total headache suffers). If we compare this to other chronic severe pains, these numbers are staggering.


Perhaps it is a cultural issue of “pushing through the pain”. Or perhaps an awareness issue of not realizing the management options for this kind of pain. Or maybe it is just a complex issue that is difficult to treat with only one singular intervention. Or all of the above…


One area that is often overlooked is the contribution of the facial and jaw structures.


The temporomandibular joint (TMJ) is the fancy name for where the jaw meets the skull. It has a rich blood supply and shares nerves with the neck and the deep brain (cranial nerves). Its muscular system acts as to control the jaw with eating, talking, laughing etc, but also as the stabilizing structure to the anterior aspect of the neck. So, dysfunction of any of these structures can contribute to pain felt in the head, neck or face.


So how can you tell if your jaw is making your headaches worse?


The first thing to check is for clicking in the jaw. Whilst it is not uncommon for the jaw to click from time to time, it is often the first sign that there is a mechanical change in the way the jaw is working. If the click has become louder, more painful or is locking, it should become the first priority to get things assessed.


Secondly, check the distance between your teeth (or how wide you can open). Of course, numbers vary person to person, but the average interincisal distance is 35-55mm (or about 3 fingers worth). Any less than this may mean your jaw is not moving effectively, and be contributing to your head pain.


Thirdly, behaviours such as teeth grinding (bruxism), clenching, nail biting, prolonged chewing gum use, or always eating on one side have links to facial pain and headaches. So, if someone has mentioned these to you or you know these are habits in your normal day, get your jaw assessed for temporomandibular dysfunction (TMD) and it’s possible relationship to your headache.


Now symptoms like tingling, numbness, facial drooping, swallowing issues, or “thunder clap” pains in the head are not usually jaw driven, and more urgent medical advice is to be sought out.


So Australians, let’s do better than 3%, not only seek advice for your headache but also how your jaw symptoms may interact and contribute to your headache.