Headaches: The Dental Connection

Headaches: The Dental Connection


You probably remember the old song “…the knee bone’s connected to the leg bone; the leg bone’s connected to the hip bone….etc.” Your (lower) jaw bone actually is connected to your “head bone”¾ and it is connected by muscles, ligaments, and tendons. This area is known as the temporomandibular joint or the TMJ. When the lower jaw lines up perfectly with the upper jaw and everything functions normally, everything is fine. If the lower jaw does not line up properly or, perhaps more importantly, if there is abnormal stress present when the lower jaw contacts the upper jaw, problems can occur. The abnormal stress is usually clenching or grinding of the teeth and it can occur any time, day or night, awake or asleep. When this happens, a person can develop regular, chronic, or migraine headaches; muscle pain or tenderness in the jaw joint muscles; or the temporomandibular joint dysfunction (TMD). Forty-four million Americans suffer from chronic clenching and grinding, resulting in tooth damage, and 23 million suffer from migraine headache pain.

While mouthguards have been used with some success to treat TMD patients, a new FDA-approved device seems to offer a higher success rate in eliminating TMJ problems. This device has an additional advantage in that it was designed to reduce the clenching habits that often lead to chronic and migraine headaches. This device prevents the upper and lower teeth from coming into contact. By preventing high-intensity clenching (and the muscular irritation that leads to migraine pain, TMD, and chronic headaches), studies have shown that 82% of migraine and headache sufferers had a 77% reduction in the migraine incidents. In short, the frequency and intensity of headache episodes and muscle tenderness can be reduced with the use of a mouthguard.

A tension suppression system is another effective form of mouthguard that can treat TMD. This small removable device, made in the office, can be worn day and/or night and has been shown to reduce clenching intensity by 66%. It takes advantage of a naturally protective reflex that suppresses the powerful chewing muscles active in clenching. For those concerned about insurance coverage, the cost of this device is submitted first to medical insurance for evaluation of benefit coverage. Most insurance carriers do consider this device a payable benefit.

How important is the reduction of the clenching stress? Try this simple demonstration. Put a pencil between the last top and bottom molars on one side and bite hard. Remember how hard you were biting. Then take the pencil and place it between the top and bottom front teeth and bite down hard again. You will not be able to bite down as hard when just biting on the front teeth. You should be able to detect a great difference between biting (clenching) on back teeth only and front teeth only. Try another test: lightly place your fingertips on either side of your head in the temporal area (above and in front of the ears). Clench your teeth and feel the muscles on either side of the head bulge out. Then take a pencil, place it between the top and bottom front teeth, and bite down again. You will easily feel that the temporal muscles do not (cannot) bulge out as much, meaning that not as much clenching compression is possible.

If you have any questions about the connection between headaches and your teeth, please feel free to ask us.