Headache help: Could your teeth be causing migraines?

Man with a migraine headache caused by teeth

Weather fluctuations can trigger serious migraine pain for millions of sufferers each season — but what many people don’t realize is that migraine pain may also be caused by treatable dental conditions.

Since the proximity of the jaw to the brain is so close, there could be a link between headaches (including migraines) and dental health, says Dr Jack Ringer, president of the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry and a cosmetic dentist in Orange County, California.

Dr Ringer points to several factors that can cause abnormal stimulation which can be diagnosed and treated by a dental professional.

Could your teeth cause migraines? 6 telltale symptoms

Here are some questions that will help determine whether dental issues are the cause of your migraines.

  1. Do you wake up in the morning with sore or painful jaw muscles?
  2. Are your headaches often in the areas of the temples and/or back of the neck?
  3. Do you have pain in the upper shoulder or trapezius area?
  4. Do you have a sensation that your bite doesn’t feel right or your bite changes?
  5. Have you ever heard a clicking or a grinding sound in your jaw joint?
  6. Do you ever have pain or discomfort while chewing, especially when chewing gum?
Dental treatments for migraines

Answering “yes” to one or more of these symptoms should trigger a comprehensive oral health evaluation to determine whether a tooth problem is the root cause of migraine pain.

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Dr Peter Auster, an AACD dentist and President of the New York Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry, says one treatment option used frequently is an oral appliance that only allows contact on one or several front teeth. The back teeth are prevented from touching, so the temporalis muscle, which runs to the top of the lower jaw, does not bulge or contract as strongly. This allows for decreased muscle stress and less frequent morning headaches.

Neuromuscular dentistry is another treatment which realigns bite, teeth, jaw and joints to their optimal position using a special orthotic and TENS therapy, which gently relaxes jaw muscles.

Stress & teeth grinding

Sometimes an abnormal bite can cause you to clench, grind or shift to find a comfortable position for the top and bottom teeth to mesh together, Dr Ringer notes. When this persists, damage to the TMJ (jaw joint) can occur which can lead to migraines.

“Stress also causes many patients to clench their teeth,” Dr Ringer says. “This creates muscle tension in the head and neck area and in turn nerve stimulation leading to headaches.”

Analyzing your bite and making necessary adjustments or treating the teeth can help reverse migraines headaches caused by teeth misalignment and stress-related teeth grinding.

Infections and impacted teeth

Teeth or gum infections can also lead to migraines. Dr Ringer notes that root canal therapy and periodontal (gum) therapy can help eliminate head and neck pain associated with these conditions.

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Impacted wisdom teeth can also cause pressure or infections where they are located which can lead to head and neck pain. Removal of these teeth will eliminate these symptoms if your pain was caused by impactions.

Talk to your doctor first, then check with your dentist

While anyone with a history of severe headaches should see his/her physician to determine if there is an obvious medical cause, Dr Auster notes that a conservative dental approach can work in many cases.

“Dentistry might not always be the answer to migraines, but I have used a variety of treatment options with success,” says Dr Auster. In particular, he had one patient who suffered from headaches for over twenty years, whose headaches finally disappeared after treatment began.

Connections supported by medical research

Researchers at Oregon Health & Science University’s School of Dentistry uncovered an interaction between two proteins in the nerve cells that carry pain information from the head and neck to the brain. Their findings, published during 2006 in the Journal of Neurochemistry, could play a significant role in the development of therapies to cure migraines and other craniofacial pain conditions like TMJ (temporomandibular joint) disorder.

“Our discovery reveals the complexities of pain signaling mechanisms from the head and neck to the brain,” said Agnieszka Balkowiec, MD, PhD, principal investigator, OHSU School of Dentistry assistant professor of integrative biosciences and OHSU School of Medicine adjunct assistant professor of physiology and pharmacology.

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Head pain is signaled to the brain by what’s known as the trigeminal nerve. The trigeminal nerve also conveys other types of sensation — such as touch and temperature — from numerous structures of the face, including the skin, ears, cornea, temporomandibular joints and teeth.

Studies suggest that the trigeminal nerve provides the signaling pathway for pain associated with migraines, TMJ disorder, periodontal pain, dental surgical pain, trigeminal neuralgia, head and neck cancer pain, and other neuropathic and inflammatory pain conditions.

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