TMJ and Its Link to Headaches and Sleep Apnea

By: Dr. Elizabeth Eggert

Most everyone suffers from throbbing headaches at some point in their lives. But when headaches are chronic, it’s a cause for concern. Also, most everyone has now heard of sleep apnea, a serious condition in which the body pauses breathing or takes shallow, short breaths while sleeping, but is there a link between the two?

These conditions may seem unrelated, but new research has found a connection between chronic headaches and sleep apnea and TMJ disorder. The TMJ, or temporomandibular joint, connects your upper and lower jaws. When it is properly aligned, it works silently and seamlessly. When it’s not, it causes pain, soreness, and an off-center bite. People with severe TMJ disorder have trouble sleeping and can even experience lockjaw. Now, studies show TMJ disorder can cause more serious health concerns, too.

The Link between TMJ Disorder and Headaches
When the TMJ is not working properly, the muscles that stabilize the joint work overtime to support it. These muscles get fatigued, which leads to pain. If untreated, this pain can radiate from the jaw to the temples, back of the head, and down the neck, causing headaches. Sometimes this pain is subtle—maybe you feel a little foggy or have trouble concentrating. Other times, TMJ disorder can cause throbbing headaches or even migraines that are impossible to ignore.

The Link between TMJ Disorder and Sleep Apnea
Since the temporomandibular joint is so close to the sinuses and airways, TMJ disorder can affect breathing. A misaligned TMJ can cause improper tongue position that blocks the airway during sleep. A recent study of people with TMJ disorder found 75 percent of participants experienced sleep-disordered breathing (SDB).

Diagnosing TMJ Disorder
Most TMJ disorder patients we diagnose complain about soreness along their jawline, feeling a clicking or popping sensation when they open and close their jaws, headaches, and trouble sleeping. To help get you the right treatment, we look for the following symptoms:

  • Clicking and popping in the temporomandibular joint
  • Malalignment of the teeth and bite
  • Pain in your forehead, temples, neck, and back of the head
  • Head posture, especially where the head is in front of the shoulders rather than centered over the shoulders
  • Evidence of grinding teeth or clenching the jaw during the day or while sleeping
  • Snoring during sleep
  • Restless sleep

How to Treat TMJ Disorder and Prevent Headaches and Sleep Apnea
Once we’ve diagnosed you with TMJ disorder, we’ll discuss your options for treating it. Many patients benefit from an oral appliance, also known as a splint. There are different ways we design splints, but typically these devices are custom-made for you. When worn, they keep your bite in a better position and more comfortable alignment. They also protect your teeth from grinding and clenching. Essentially, they give your jaw muscles a break.

Some patients can eliminate headaches and sleep apnea symptoms by wearing an oral appliance. With a properly aligned jaw, the tongue can rest in a more natural position, clearing the airway. But if an appliance alleviates TMJ pain without solving your sleep apnea, we often have to delve in deeper, sometimes working through different trial splints before we know which is the best for you. We also most likely would work with your sleep and general doctor to make sure we are getting your apnea or other sleep disordered breathing under control.

If you’re experiencing jaw pain, headaches, or troubling sleeping, schedule a consultation with Eggert Family Dentistry. We’ll determine if you’re suffering from TMJ disorder or possibly sleep issues and recommend treatment to alleviate it.

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