Headache, Migraines, and TMJ: The Ultimate Guide to Understanding Your Pain

tmj pain headaches and migraines

Are you dealing with frequent headaches? You aren’t alone! Approximately 8 million Americans visit their doctors for pain from headaches every year, but that is just a fraction of the 45 million Americans who complain of headache pain in a given year. Despite the prevalence of headaches and migraines, there is still a lack of understanding in the public about what they are, what causes them, and what can be done to alleviate symptoms or prevent headaches entirely. Today, we hope to clear up some of the confusion about headaches and related and connected medical issues such as TMJ disorder. Let’s explore this complex issue.

Exploring the Different Types of Headaches

Not all headaches are created equal. Your experience of what you describe as a headache is likely to be different from the experience of what someone else refers to as a headache. Before you assume that you are both talking about the same thing, make sure you know what kind of headaches exist out there. Knowing what kind of headache you are actively experiencing can better help you respond to the symptoms that you are suffering from.

Tension Headaches

With tension headaches, you will probably experience mild to moderate pain and discomfort. They are among the most common types of headaches that an individual might experience. Many sufferers describe the pain as feeling like a band is wrapped around the head and behind their eyes. They typically describe the pain as dull. It is common for this type of headache to be experienced at the end of a long day of work or school, but it can be experienced at any time. Sufferers typically describe the duration of a tension headache as lasting between 30 minutes to a few hours


If you experience a much more severe type of pain with your headaches, then you might be dealing with a migraine. You may experience throbbing pain on one side or the other of their heads. These headaches are often so painful that they may cause the sufferer to be unable to perform typical daily tasks. Worse yet, this type of pain can be long-lasting, with some sufferers stating that they suffer migraines over days. 

Exertional Headache

Going for a workout is supposed to make you feel great and do wonders for your body, and that is a common experience for many people. However, there can be some drawbacks to working out too extensively. If you up your workout too much, you might find that you suffer from an exertional headache. These headaches don’t often last long after you have stopped the exercise activity, but they can be extremely frustrating to deal with as you try to do right by your body. 

Sinus Headache

If your sinuses are acting up, you may also experience a headache along with other symptoms. This is to say that along with a runny nose, a fever, and other symptoms of sinus issues, you might have some dull pain in your head as well. These types of headaches are certainly not fun to deal with (because you are already dealing with all of the other symptoms of sinus issues. 

Caffeine Withdrawal Headaches

Who doesn’t love reaching for a little pick-me-up in the morning in the form of a caffeinated beverage? Recent studies showed that approximately 85% of Americans drink at least one caffeinated beverage per day. Many of us go for far more caffeinated beverages than just one! Also, many of the beverages that we do consume are jam-packed with caffeine. The energy drink market was worth an estimated $159 billion in 2021, and those beverages can contain 160mg of caffeine or more per 16oz drink!

With that in mind, what happens when someone decides to pull back on their caffeine intake or simply hasn’t had the opportunity to indulge their caffeine craving? They may end up with a caffeine withdrawal headache. These headaches are challenging for many people because they feel the impacts of their body withdrawing from consuming a drug that it is accustomed to consuming. Therefore, you can expect some serious discomfort with this one until you reach for caffeine once again. 

TMJ Headaches

TMJ stands for temporomandibular joint disorder and refers to the condition faced by many where their jaw tenses up in such a fashion that they grind their teeth and experience a significant amount of pain throughout their head as a result.

Those who have to go through something like this will tell you firsthand that the pain of a TMJ headache is something that they would very much like to not have to contend with. Unfortunately, it is often an associated part of the reality of suffering from TMJ. We will cover this type of headache in greater detail shortly. 

Cluster Headaches

The most severe type of headache that an individual might suffer from is known as a cluster headache. It is, fortunately, the rarest type of headache out there. However, for those who suffer from these types of headaches the pain and suffering can be extremely intense.

These headaches might last anywhere from 15 minutes to 3 hours, but they may occur on a daily or near-daily basis for weeks or months on end. The sufferer might feel like they will never escape from the pain associated with cluster headaches, and that can be a rough place to be both mentally and physically. 

These are not all of the different types of headaches out there, but this covers a significant portion of the different types of headaches that one might suffer from. Each individual’s experience is unique, and symptoms may vary. That said, this list presents you with some of the possible types of headaches that you may encounter in your own life. Knowing what you could be up against can help you better prepare for confronting these circumstances head-on. 

Experiences That May Lead to Headaches

experiences that lead to tmj headaches and migraines
Exhausted tired sad depressed ill overworked young african woman tutor student freelancer having problems at work, suffering from headache, migraine at workplace office.

Frustratingly, headaches can be triggered by several different sources. You might not even be able to pinpoint precisely what caused a given headache within yourself. However, you should know of some of the common experiences that are more likely to lead to headaches in many patients. If you know what to steer clear of, then you can potentially put yourself on a path to avoid headaches or at least reduce their frequency. 

Muscle Tension

Who among us doesn’t carry some stress of the day with them wherever they go? If this sounds scary familiar to you, then you might be dealing with muscle tension that ultimately leads to increased headaches.

Mount Sinai explains that tension headaches are among the most common types of headaches. When you consider the stresses of modern life such as paying bills, taking care of your children, and dealing with issues at work, it is easy to see why so many of us are up to our ears with stress.

Stress isn’t the only trigger for muscle tension either. It can also be brought about by having poor posture or even sleeping in an awkward position. No matter the specific source of your muscle tension, watch out for signs of a tension headache sneaking up on you if your muscles are consistently tight.

Emotional Distress

Human beings are emotional creatures by nature, and it is perfectly healthy to express a wide range of emotions. However, some things can go wrong within our emotional lives that may cause us to go into a state of emotional distress. When this occurs, you may experience headaches that accompany the emotional distress symptoms that you are currently facing. A few of the types of emotional distress that may also involve headaches include: 

  • Depression – It is quite common for people who experience persistent feelings of being “sad or down” to not tell their loved ones about it. The stigma around mental health disorders remains strong, and this may lead some to complain of physical ailments such as headaches rather than the emotional difficulties that they are also going through. Individuals should address the full range of issues related to their mental health issues, but many only feel comfortable disclosing physical ailments such as headaches. 
  • Anxiety – There is often a link between symptoms of anxiety and headaches. Researchers are still exploring the issue in greater detail, and it is not necessarily clear which issue causes the other. The connection is understood to exist, but the cause and effect are still to be determined. That said, anyone who has bad headaches or bad anxiety might want to get checked out. They can contribute to one another and make each issue worse. 
  • Excessive Stress – It is impossible to avoid all stress in one’s life. A healthy level of stress is useful for all humans because there are certain situations that we must respond to rapidly. However, carrying excessive stress in your life can lead to the development of all different types of headaches. Relationship strain, financial strain, the death of a loved one, and many other things can trigger extra stress in one’s life that can directly contribute to headaches and make life more challenging overall. 

These are just a few examples of the different emotional issues that one might encounter that can increase the frequency or intensity of their headaches. Be mindful of these potential issues in your own life so you can confront them one by one to reduce or eliminate them as a problem entirely. 

Medical Issues

Certain medical issues may lead to an increased chance of developing headaches. If you suffer from the following, you may have more severe and more frequent headaches: 

  • High Blood Pressure – Generally, having high blood pressure alone is not enough to cause a headache. However, having a hypertension attack might be enough to cause you to experience a headache. This could be a rather serious medical situation that you need to address as soon as possible. Hypertension is nothing to take lightly, and a headache on top of that may be your body’s way of telling you that something serious is going on. Reaching out to medical professionals that can help you at this time is your best bet to stem any potential development of more severe issues. 
  • TMJ Disorder – Do you suffer from TMJ? You might have noticed that some of the pain that goes along with your TMJ suffering comes in the form of headaches and/or migraines. The constant grinding of your teeth and the strain on your jaw is highly connected to pain that is centralized in your head. If you suffer from TMJ disorder, then you may expect to have headaches as part of the experience. If those headaches become intense, you may want to seek medical treatment as soon as possible to reduce their impacts on your life overall. It is highly unpleasant to deal with TMJ by itself, let alone with accompanying headaches. 

There are treatments that you can use to reduce the impact of the various medical issues that might cause you to develop more frequent headaches. Everyone should want to avoid the pain that comes with frequent headaches. Speak with your doctor about what you can do to handle the medical issues that may be causing you some distress. 

Environmental Factors

Sometimes a headache can be triggered by the environmental factors of the location where you happen to be at a given time. Not only does the physical space where you are playing have an impact on your likelihood to develop a headache but also the various elements that exist within that space at the same time. Some of the following are known to trigger headaches in some sufferers: 

  • Flashing Lights – Both natural and artificial lights can trigger headaches and migraines in some people. This is particularly likely to be a problem if the light flashes rapidly or is overly bright. In either of those scenarios, an individual in that environment might find themselves suffering from a headache. Our brains are not built to handle that much light that rapidly, and it may cause a strain on your eyes at the same time. Given this, you might notice that environments where flashing lights are common, such as sports stadiums and concert halls, are more likely to cause you to develop a headache. 
  • Loud Noises – Sensitivity to noise is common for some people. Excessively loud noises aren’t just bad for your eardrums, but also for the potential to develop a headache. If you aren’t careful about keeping yourself protected from this risk, you might find that you are immediately suffering from a headache that you might not otherwise have had to deal with. Sometimes excessively loud noises are impossible for you to predict or avoid, but there are other scenarios when you know that you are going to face these noises. If you happen to know that you are entering an area where loud noises will be a factor, you should do your best to wear ear-protective gear to reduce the impact of those noises. 
  • Polluted Environments – Some individuals who regularly experience migraines complain that they are more likely to experience migraines when they are in a polluted environment. This pollution might come in the form of smog from vehicles and industrial plants in the area, or it might come from something like cigarette or cigar smoke. No matter what, the pollution of the area can make it more difficult for someone who suffers from migraines to deal with the increased likelihood of developing more migraines. 

As you can see, some of these factors are things that you can actively choose to avoid, and some are not. You need to think carefully about the circumstances you put yourself in before you get out there. You might be doing yourself a huge favor by planning and understanding the risk factors associated with certain environments. 

The Connection Between TMJ Disorder and Headaches/Migraines

We have touched upon the fact that TMJ disorder is often connected with headaches and migraines. However, this is a fascinating connection that deserves a deeper dive due to the relative frequency with which people experience both issues. 

TMJ Disorder: The Common Ailment No One is Talking About

It is amazing to think about how little TMJ disorder is discussed in popular media considering how common it is. The University of Illinois Chicago reports the following about this: 

As per Dr. Jasjot Sahni, DDS, FAAOP, Clinical Assistant Professor at the Oral Medicine and Facial Pain Clinic at UIC College of Dentistry, roughly 10 million people in the United States suffer from at least one TMJ disorder. Multiple factors can cause TMD such as stress, trauma, clenching or grinding habits, and chewing hard foods.

Despite the millions of people who are actively suffering from TMJ disorder, there is still not nearly enough attention or research placed on this topic. The public often doesn’t understand much about it at all, and there are a disturbingly high number of people who simply don’t know that they may have it. If you are concerned that you might have TMJ disorder, look for the following symptoms

  • Aches and pains in or around your ears
  • Pain or tenderness in your jaw 
  • Difficulty chewing or pain when chewing
  • Facial pain
  • Difficulty opening or closing your mouth

These symptoms may be signs that you have TMJ disorder, and you might have been suffering from this issue for a significant time. If the symptoms described here sound familiar to you, then it is possible that you already have TMJ even if you didn’t realize it. You should turn to your doctor to get an official diagnosis of TMJ disorder so that you can figure out your next steps in consultation with that medical professional. 

TMJ and Migraines

Research is still ongoing about the connections between TMJ and migraines, but early research suggests that there is a deep connection between the two. One study found that those who hadn’t yet been diagnosed with TMJ were more likely to develop constant headaches before a diagnosis of TMJ occurs. Therefore, it is obvious to many doctors that there is some connection between TMJ and headaches and migraines. Another study found that 100% of people in the group with chronic migraines also had TMJ compared with just 54% who didn’t have chronic migraines. 

You are not guaranteed to have both conditions develop together, but there are enough people who have suffered from both of these issues at the same time. 

Pinched Nerves

It is a certainty that migraines are often triggered by a pinched nerve, particularly a trigeminal nerve. A migraine can be triggered when branches of the trigeminal nerve get pinched by the pressure from the jaw muscles. Your jaw muscles may be off-kilter or off-balance because of a TMJ diagnosis. A migraine may be triggered by these nerves being damaged or pinched in any way. 

Two of the most likely compression points are located very close to the trigeminal nerve. When you have TMJ, you might find that it becomes a lot easier to inadvertently damage your nerves at major compression points like that. Be mindful of the potential for TMJ symptoms to potentially cause or worsen your headache symptoms. 

Overwhelmed Nerves

Another way that TMJ is known to potentially trigger migraines is by overwhelming the trigeminal nerve. This nerve is built to carry pain signals from your jaw area to your brain. If your jaw is suffering from some kind of pain, you will hear about it from the trigeminal nerve. However, if that nerve is constantly having to send signals to your brain over and over again, it may become overwhelmed and cause you to end up with headaches and migraines as a result. 

These findings are backed up by medical doctors who have studied the potential connection between the two issues extensively. Psychology Today reported on the following information as presented by Steven B Graff-Radford, DDS, Director, The Program for Headache and Orofacial Pain, The Pain Center: 

“The TMJ and associated face and mouth structures should be considered as triggering or persisting factors for migraine. Scientific study has described the pathways and mechanisms for pain referral from the head to the temporomandibular joint and visa-versa. Headache may result from temporomandibular structures, or pain may be referred to the temporomandibular joint, secondary to a primary headache diagnosis. It is essential not to confuse the issue and suggest a cause-and-effect relationship because both are present or based on treatment responses” (Graff-Radford).

Therefore, it is fair to say that anyone with either TMJ or migraines is likely at risk for developing symptoms of the other at some point. 

Treatment Options for TMJ Disorder

A variety of strategies may be used to work on treating your TMJ disorder if this is ultimately what you are diagnosed with. The only way to know for certain which one is best for you is to speak with your doctor about the various treatment options and see what he or she thinks is your best approach given your specific health factors. 


Patients generally prefer treatment options that are as minimally invasive as possible, and that is why many would like to use medications to combat their TMJ disorder rather than other options that might be more expensive and difficult on their bodies. Therefore, you should speak with your doctor about the potential to be prescribed certain medications for the temporomandibular joint disorder. A few of those medications may include:

  • Pain Relievers and Anti-Inflammatories – Over-the-counter pain relief and anti-inflammatory medications exist that anyone can purchase and keep around their house. However, if those are not strong enough for you, your doctor may prescribe something with a little more power behind it. Ask them about this as you might find that this is the key to obtaining the relief you need from the painful symptoms of TMJ disorder. 
  • Tricycle Antidepressants – Based on the name, you can probably tell that these types of medications are typically used to treat depression. However, low doses of certain tricycle antidepressants might prove useful in combating symptoms of TMJ disorder as well. 
  • Muscle Relaxants – Some people are prescribed muscle relaxants for a few days or weeks to relieve some of the pain associated with their TMJ disorder. These are to be used sparingly as there is at least some risk of addiction among certain populations. 

Your doctor will have the best answer about which of these options might be right for you. Describe your symptoms to the doctor in detail so he or she can have as much information as possible about what to recommend for your situation. 

Therapy Options

Another path that some people opt for to avoid surgery is therapy options. These options include: 

  • Physical Therapy – Learn from medical professionals about certain stretches you can use to improve the muscles around your jaw. Also, you might be told that you need to have an ultrasound done to see the extent of the damage to your jaw already caused by the TMJ. Finally, heat or cold packs may be used on or near your jaw for some temporary relief as well. 
  • Counseling – You might simply need to meet with someone who can inform you about specific behaviors to potentially avoid so you don’t worsen the problems in your jaw. There are particular habits that you might be doing without even realizing it that could cause your TMJ to become worse than it was before. Counselors will not only advise you about what those habits are, but they can offer you strategies for how to stop doing what you had been doing that was causing additional pain in your jaw. Behaviors that you want to drop ASAP include fingernail biting, leaning on your chin, etc. 
  • Occlusal Splints – This option is specifically for those who suffer from TMJ and need a surgically inserted mouth guard to help ensure they don’t end up causing additional damage to their jaw while they are asleep. These splints are custom-made for the patient to fit specifically to their mouth. This both protects the patient’s teeth from additional harm and helps keep their jaw safe from the symptoms of TMJ as well.

If none of this works for you, then you might want to consider some of the surgical options that have proven fruitful for TMJ sufferers in the past. 

Surgical Options

The most severe cases of TMJ sometimes require surgical options to reduce the pain and allow the sufferer to get back to living the life that they want to live. Surgery options include: 

  • TMJ Arthroscopy – This is considered a less invasive form of surgery than some of the others. With this type of surgery, a small thin tube is inserted into the joint space in your jaw where an arthroscope is then inserted. The idea is that this will bring you some relief from the strain that otherwise exists within your jaw. 
  • Modified Condylotomy – This type of surgery doesn’t address issues of the jaw directly, but it does perform a procedure on the mandible. This may indirectly help you find some relief from the TMJ pain that you have been suffering. Again, this is not a direct form of TMJ pain relief, but some people have found it useful all the same. 
  • Corticosteroid Injections These injections have been found to provide some pain relief in certain patients suffering from issues in their jaw. Those who have reported pain relief specifically point to relief that they have experienced when chewing. 

These, and other surgical options, might not be your first choice, but they can offer you the relief you need from TMJ pain and perhaps help you to avoid or reduce headaches and migraines as well. Always seek professional medical advice from your doctor about which treatment options make the most sense for your specific case. 

Why You Shouldn’t Ignore TMJ Pain

If you have read this far, then you probably already understand that it is unwise to ignore TMJ pain. However, the temptation to do so remains high for some people. They might be concerned that the procedures that they receive to treat their ailments will be very expensive and outside of what they can afford. However, the true cost of ignoring TMJ pain can be far more expensive than simply taking care of the situation and allowing yourself to start feeling better right now. 

Here are a few reasons you do NOT want to ignore TMJ pain: 

  • Tooth Loss – TMJ disorder that is left untreated may ultimately result in tooth loss. You continue to grind your teeth more and more, and this can lead to the loss of one or more teeth. You don’t want to take a chance on destroying your beautiful smile because you were too afraid to get your TMJ disorder checked out. 
  • Sleep Apnea – It is possible to develop sleep apnea with TMJ disorder. This is when breathing is temporarily interrupted during sleep. Not only is this scary and dangerous, but it might result in an individual losing out on the chance to get a good night’s sleep at all. That can lead to additional health problems. 
  • Mental Health Concerns – Prolonged headaches and TMJ pain may result in mental health concerns such as the potential development of depression, anxiety, or other issues. Don’t take a chance on something like that when you don’t have to. 

There are solutions to your TMJ pain and to your headaches and migraines as well. You must be willing to accept the help that is offered, but there is plenty of it out there for you as long as you are open to it. 

For all of the latest information about the relationship between TMJ and headaches, please contact a TMJ Relax specialist near you.