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Headaches: What You Don’t Know Will Hurt You

Even if you don’t suffer from headaches, you’ve probably experienced “brain freeze” after a scoop of your favorite ice cream.  While experts don’t really know why it happens, it’s believed that the cold against your warm palate causes blood vessels to constrict and relax suddenly. This vessel spasm results in a burst of pain, leaving you empathetic to the 28 million Americans that suffer from migraines. Add another 20 million who deal with chronic headaches of other origins and you understand why doctors hear about this ailment often. In fact, physicians report headaches as the number one medical complaint and frequently order a variety of tests in search of a cause.

Headaches rarely indicate the presence of a serious disease. But if you’re dealing with frequent or severe headaches, you should consult with your physician.  While a definite diagnosis may be identified, some patients find themselves frustrated with an unclear answer. And treatment should target more than symptoms: The steady use of pain medication creates side effects that may include kidney damage or dependency.

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The Missing Link

Your dentist may be able to shed a little light on chronic head pain. Millions of Americans struggle with temporomandibular joint (TMJ) headaches without realizing it.  This complex joint allows the lower jaw to fit and function against the skull in front of the ears, and one or both joints may become inflamed.  Unfortunately, TMJ headaches are frequently overlooked by physicians because symptoms often mimic other types of headaches.  The pain may feel like it’s in the sinuses, over the top of the head, or up through the temples.  But pain doesn’t always show up at the source.  It often radiates to nearby sites and confuses the search for an origin.

A recent study at the University of Buffalo examined nearly 600 patients with TMJ pain symptoms. Researchers demonstrated that in 82% of subjects, physical pressure over the TMJ area produced pain that presented as a classic muscle tension headache. Although TMJ symptoms were present in all participants, 152 were diagnosed with tension headaches only. 

That means 25% of the patients hadn’t received a complete diagnosis.

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The lead researcher noted that “TMJ is very treatable, but if a jaw disorder is ignored, then treatment for a headache may not address all of the factors contributing to the headache.”  Many providers evaluating headache patients don’t understand the relationship of these joints to chronic pain conditions.  It’s simply vital that every headache sufferer receives an evaluation of this region.

While migraine headaches are linked to a vascular cause, TMJ disorders can aggravate the Trigeminal nerve and trigger their onset. This major nerve links many structures in the head and neck. While not a guarantee, migraine headaches may be reduced with proper management of these associated problems.

Consider This

Review the following questions to see if your headaches may be linked to a TMJ disorder.  Keep your answers to discuss with Dr. Bellerjeau, Dr. LovellDr. MacRae or Dr. Kern:

  • Do you wake up with headaches?
  • Does your jaw ever feel stiff, locked, or sore in the morning?
  • Do you have more than two headaches each week?
  • Do you have pain in your jaw when you eat?
  • Do you take painkillers four or more times each week for headaches?
  • Does your jaw pop, click, or lock when you open?
  • Have you noticed any changes in the way your teeth bite together?
  • Have you noticed wear or chipping on any of your teeth?
  • Do you catch yourself clenching your teeth during the day?
  • Do you feel tenderness when you push on the sides of your face?
  • Do you feel pain in front of your ears when you chew or open wide?

If you answered YES to three or more of these questions, there’s a significant chance that you’re suffering from TMJ headaches. But management of this affliction frequently involves conservative measures offering dramatic relief from pain. Dr. Bellerjeau, Dr. LovellDr. MacRae and Dr. Kern's experience with TMJ headache disorders includes focusing on the cause of the problem, not just the symptoms.  We’re here to help you or your loved ones discover optimal health and pain-free living!