How to Tell the Difference: Migraines vs. TMJ Headaches

TMJ or Migraine Headache?

When we have a severe headache we often think we have a migraine.  There is however, another culprit to look out for: your temporomandibular joint (TMJ). Your TMJ is the hinge where your jaw connects to your skull, and it allows us to chew, talk, yawn, etc. When this joint and its muscles are irritated from chronic clenching or trauma, it can produce a pain in the head and neck that can easily be mistaken for a migraine headache.

Migraines are generally headaches that happen repeatedly and often there is a family history. Approximately 15% of the world’s population, including children, suffer from migraines (source: Migraine Trust). There are two main categories of migraines: common and classic. For the purposes of this post we are focusing solely on the common migraine (see the resources linked below this post for more information on the differences between the two types).

Which One of These Headaches Do I Have?

These two types of headaches have overlapping symptoms and are often be confused for one another. Ultimately they have key distinctions that will tell them apart and determine how well they can be resolved and/or managed:

TMJ Headache (has at least two of the following) Common Migraine (has at least two of the following)

• tension headache, with a band-like pressing/tightening pain

• often but not always bilateral (dual sided location)

• mild to moderate in intensity

• not aggravated by physical activity

• pulsating pain (thought to be caused by dilation of blood vessels)

• unilateral (one-sided location)

• moderate to severe in intensity

• physical activity aggravates the condition

To tell them apart it’s helpful to note the two types of headaches have different triggers that worsen the symptoms. Prolonged or forceful chewing (examples of difficult foods for the jaw are steak, apples, a large sandwich, even gum chewing etc.), stress, and poor posture (often while sitting and doing computer work or writing) aggravate TMJ headaches. Migraines are often worsened by certain foods, physical activity, bright lights, noises, and even some odors.

How Chiropractic Techniques Can Help

Whether you’ve identified your headache culprit or would like Dr. Dade’s professional opinion, the benefits of chiropractic treatment begin with a comprehensive examination. Tension and congestion in muscle tissue create dysfunctions that can contribute to irritation in the nervous system, which can trigger both TMJ and migraine headaches. Chiropractic treatment with Active Release Techniques (ART) provides relief, while also restoring optimal motion to the affected joints.

Chiropractic manipulation and myofascial work (such as Active Release Technique) of the jaw, neck, and upper back treat tension-type TMJ headaches. Depending on the patient one, or both techniques are used. Rest and/or migraine medications are typically the best treatment approach for the most severe acute stage migraines. When the acute stage is over ART and chiropractic manipulation of the neck and upper back is effective for chronic migraine.

Is there anything else?

Yes there almost always are other things that can help. Self-care is an important part of long term resolution and stabilization of any condition, particularly headaches. Keeping a log to record a history will help determine the triggers, timing, quality, and severity of the headaches, giving us the information we need to treat it. Because of this, Dr. Dade uses the DREAM (Diet, Rest, Exercise, Alignment, and Mindfulness) protocol, recommending lifestyle modifications to assist in treating a patient’s condition beyond the office visit.

Contact Dr. Dade here. He looks forward to partnering with you on your wellness journey.


References and for more information:

Migraine Trust

Relias Media

Image by Istvan Brecz-Gruber from Pixabay

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