Do you wake up every morning with a headache or often feel a dull throbbing throughout the day? It could be due to a number of reasons. For example, it might happen because of the way you sleep or because you have tight neck or shoulder muscles.

But, there’s another potential cause you may want to consider. It may be due to issues with your temporomandibular joints (TMJs), which connect your jaw to your skull.

At Virginia H. Ellis, DDS Dental Corp., in Orinda, California, Dr. Ellis and her staff specialize in diagnosing and treating problems with the TMJs. Whether your headaches are constant or sporadic, an evaluation can determine if your TMJs are at the root of the issue.

The basics of temporomandibular joint disorders

You have two temporomandibular joints, one on each side of your head, and they connect your jaw to your skull and allow you to open and close your mouth. If you have a problem with one or both of these joints, the condition is called a temporomandibular joint disorder (TMD).

TMDs have been reported in nearly 50% of adults in the United States, with women being more susceptible than men. The various problems at the root of TMDs are treatable, but since there are many potential causes, diagnosis can be tricky.

Doctors and dentists don’t always know what causes a TMD, but some common causes include:

  • Bruxism (teeth grinding or clenching)
  • Tooth or jaw injury
  • Tooth or jaw misalignment
  • Joint erosion
  • Degenerative diseases, such as arthritis
  • Poor posture
  • Repetitive motions, such as chewing gum

Of these, bruxism is by far the most common underlying cause. Some people clench and grind only at night, while others also do so during the day. Stress is a major factor in bruxism.

Common symptoms of TMDs include:

  • Pain or tenderness in the jaw, especially at the joint
  • Popping/clicking when you open and close your mouth
  • Ear pain
  • Tinnitus (ringing in the ears) or a sense of fullness
  • Headaches, including migraine attacks
  • Tight, stiff, or sore jaw and/or neck muscles
  • Muscle spasms in the jaw
  • Facial pain
  • Difficulty chewing
  • Lockjaw

You don’t need to have all of these to be diagnosed with TMJ dysfunction, but the more of these symptoms you have, the easier it is for Dr. Ellis to pinpoint the problem.

How jaw problems can cause headaches

When you clench or grind your teeth, the jaw muscles tighten. This stresses the TMJs and causes wear-and-tear damage. The jaw pain then refers to nearby body parts, including the skull, where it can cause anything from a mild headache to a disabling migraine attack.

The International Headache Society has developed criteria for headache specialists to use when diagnosing TMD-related headaches. The criteria for an association include:

  • Pain in one or both TMJs
  • Noises from one or both TMJs while opening or closing the jaw
  • Reduced ability to open and close the jaw
  • X-rays or MRIs positively demonstrating TMJ damage
  • Recurring pain in the head and/or face
  • Evidence that pain is precipitated by jaw movements, including chewing
  • After treatment, headaches resolve within three months and don’t return

The good news is that if there’s an association, treating the underlying joint problem should resolve the headaches.

Treating TMD-related headaches

If you have headaches due to a temporomandibular joint disorder, your provider may recommend one or more of the following therapies to help you get relief:


If bruxism is at the root of your TMJ and headache problems, Dr. Ellis will be able to see the telltale uneven tooth wear. In that case, there’s a relatively easy solution: an occlusal splint, also known as a mouthguard.

A mouthguard is a soft, custom-made plastic appliance you wear over your upper or lower teeth when you sleep, and it prevents the upper and lower teeth from touching, grinding, and stressing the TMJs.


Other standard TMD treatments, such as over-the-counter pain relievers and anti-inflammatories, may help relieve your discomfort. If these don’t work, Dr. Ellis may prescribe a muscle relaxer or a short-term steroid to help your jaw relax and heal.

Physical therapy

Physical therapy is another possibility. Dr. Ellis can teach you exercises to help stretch and strengthen your jaw muscles. She can also show you how to massage your joint muscles. She may also recommend using ice or moist heat or undergoing ultrasound treatments.


Dr. Ellis may recommend learning about factors and behaviors that can aggravate pain, so you can learn to avoid them. She may also recommend eating soft foods and learning how to relieve stress.

If you’re dealing with jaw and head pain, the two may be related, and your dentist is the specialist who can help you with both. To learn more, call (925) 272-2698, or book an appointment online with Virginia H. Ellis, DDS Dental Corp. today.