Do you suffer from chronic migraines, occurring as frequently as 15 days per month? If so, you likely know the sometimes debilitating pain that can come from these severe headaches. But there could be more bad news for people who suffer from migraine headaches. According to a recent study by researchers at the University of Sao Paolo in Brazil, there could be a connection between chronic migraine headaches and another increasingly common medical condition called temporomandibular joint dysfunction, or TMJ dysfunction.
TMJ dysfunction affects an estimated 30 percent of the United States adult population but is most common among women in their childbearing years.
The condition occurs when the temporomandibular joint of the jaw (the joint that connects the lower jaw to the skull) becomes dislocated or misaligned. Symptoms of TMJ dysfunction include headaches, neck and back aches, ringing in the ears, jaw stiffness, jaw pain, and difficulty speaking and chewing. As for what causes temporomandibular joint dysfunction, experts say it can be caused by everything from injury to stress to even genetics, and with no easy miracle cures, it can be an exercise in patience to treat.
But how does it have anything to do with migraines? According to the research team at the University of Sao Paolo, the answer isn’t clear – but what is clear is that having the condition already could make symptoms of migraines a whole lot worse.
Dr. Kelley Mingus treats temporomandibular joint dysfunction in his Bend, Oregon, clinic. He says it makes sense that TMJ dysfunction could be affecting migraine headaches, thanks to the temporomandibular joint’s location.
“With so much pain and pressure already caused by a migraine, adding the pain of temporomandibular joint dysfunction would naturally make that headache worse,” says Mingus.
So, which comes first, the chicken or the egg? Is the headache caused by temporomandibular joint dysfunction, or is the temporomandibular joint dysfunction caused by the headache? According to researchers, they likely have little relation.
“Temporomandibular joint dysfunction could be caused by migraines if those migraines cause the patient to grind their teeth or clench their jaw, but otherwise the conditions seem unrelated,” Mingus says.
As for whether those TMJ headaches are causing migraines, well, that’s a no-go either, according to the University of Sao Paolo study.
“Migraines are strictly neurological phenomena, so they can’t be caused by something like TMJ dysfunction,” says Mingus.
The good news, according to Mingus, is that at least part of the problem is treatable.
“I have seen great results treating patients with neuromuscular dentistry,” he says. “We can effectively treat the temporomandibular joint dysfunction and eliminate that pain. It may not cure your migraines, but it may be able to lessen the severity of the pain when you have them.”