If you’ve ever experienced a nagging, painful headache, you know how frustrating the experience can be. When the discomfort doesn’t go away, it becomes difficult to get much of anything done.
Sleeping is hard, talking hurts, working on your computer can be excruciating, and just going through the motions of daily life can suddenly become a major chore.
Unfortunately for many people, getting to the root of these headaches is commonly easier said than done.
Luckily, we’re here to share with you a possibility that few people have thought of before: could your nagging headaches be linked to dental pain?
Here’s what you need to know:
When Headaches Have Something to Say About Your Oral Health
Headaches and oral health often go hand-in-hand. Because headaches and toothaches transmit through the trigeminal nerve, which is the largest sensory nerve in the head, and which supplies the teeth, scalp, jaw, external face, and internal facial structures with feeling, pain can travel across branches and activate other segments of the nerve when pain is sustained or severe.
This is how pain that is initially centered in the muscles or nerves throughout the face and neck can go on to cause a negative feedback loop, which triggers the jaw and can cause neck pain, or vice-versa. When pain becomes chronic and sustained, it can lead to a headache. Alternately, a sustained toothache can easily trigger episodic headaches that become migraines over the long-term.
Even if the pain you feel in your head isn’t coming directly from a toothache, it can come from reflexive behavior centered around your face and jaw, such as jaw clenching or muscle tightening, which can cause or exacerbate pain and lead to ongoing headaches.
Because the orofacial and craniocervical systems are quite interconnected, you can clench your teeth and contract your neck muscles inadvertently and create an ongoing headache, as a result.
When head and face pain come from tooth or jaw joint injuries, it’s often because a patient is clenching or grinding the teeth for long periods of time. This causes damage to the tissues surrounding the teeth. Unfortunately, it can be difficult for physicians to identify where the pain is coming from. Because of this, it’s wise to see a dentist who can decipher dental and orofacial pain and help you create a plan for relief
Dental Problems That Trigger Headache Pain
Oral health and headaches can and often are related. In fact, many chronic headache situations are caused by conditions that can only be treated by a dentist. Here are a few of the most common problems that cause headache pain:
- Cavities and infections. Simple cavities and infections can and often do trigger headache pain. In most cases, the headaches associated with dental problems arise from tension, which results from muscle strain present in the mouth and jaw. These headaches are typically a dull pain that arises on one or both sides of the head and wraps all the way around. These are common among people who grind their teeth at night.
- Misaligned bite. If your bite is off, the muscles around your mouth have to work harder to chew food effectively. This results in muscle strain that can become constant and cause ongoing pain. As pain starts in one branch of the nerve, it can spread to other branches, leading to pain that radiates throughout the head, behind the eyes, through the temples, or across the forehead.
- Tooth grinding. If you grind your teeth at night, you overwork your jaw muscles, which causes problems within the jaw joint. This is often characterized by popping or clicking in the jaw joint, and can go on to cause headaches, migraines, and ongoing pain, as well as the destruction of the tooth surface.
Resolving Headaches Caused by Dental Pain
Think you have to live forever with the excruciating headaches caused by dental pain? Think again. According to the American Migraine Foundation, there are dozens of ways to resolve these headaches and get your life back to normal. Some of the best options include the following:
- Lifestyle changes. Changing your lifestyle is the simplest way to resolve dental-caused headaches. If you chew on your fingernails, pens, cheeks, or lips, put an end to these habits now. Even something as simple as holding your cell phone against your jaw can cause unneeded stress and pressure, and may trigger a headache. You may also want to avoid chewing gum or eating foods that are crunchy, sticky, or hard to chew.
- Cut up food. If the motion of opening your mouth large enough to take a bite out of a big, juicy hamburger hurts, start cutting up your food. Instead of taking a bite out of a whole apple, cut it up into bite-sized pieces. The more effectively you can avoid opening your mouth too widely, the less likely it is you’ll continue to suffer from dental headaches.
- Make your yawns smaller. When you yawn, be conscious about reducing the width of your mouth opening. Relax your teeth and keep them separated as you hold your face in a neutral position. If your jaw feels cramped up after a yawn, practice some gentle stretching exercises to keep it limber.
- Consider a mouth guard. If you clench your teeth while you sleep, talk to your dentist about having a custom-made mouthguard fashioned. Not only will this protect your dental surface, but it can reduce the stress on your jaw. ou have a habit of clenching, you will clench while asleep as well.
- Consider massage. Just like a good massage can release achy back muscles, it may work wonders for achy jaws and teeth. If this appeals to you, look for a massage therapist that specializes in TMJ and can help you resolve your dental issues.
You Don’t Have to Live With Jaw Pain
If you’ve been living with dental-caused headaches or migraines for years, there is relief in sight. While these conditions are uncomfortable and painful, they are also fixable. By doing simple things, like changing your lifestyle, investing in massage, having a dental guard made for sleeping, or even cutting food into small pieces, you can combat much of the discomfort associated with dental headaches, and get back to living a comfortable, pain-free life.
Dr. Felicity is a National Board Certified Dentist and a Longtime resident of Charleston.