How TMJ Pain and Headaches May Be Related…And How Physical Therapy Can Help

If you surveyed 100 people and asked them if they’ve ever had jaw pain/clicking and/or headaches, the odds are very favorable that most, if not all, would respond “yes”. Much of the time, these events are transient, or occur infrequently enough so that they don’t disrupt your life…but what might your body be telling you if you start to get jaw pain and headaches more regularly, and together? More importantly, what can you do about it? Are headaches linked to TMJ pain?


Let’s Start with Some Anatomy of the TMJ joint

Jaw pain and/or clicking can be a sign that there is improper mechanical stress through your jaw joints. These are the “hinges” on either side of your head, just below and slightly in front of the ear, that allow your jaw to open and close. Inefficient movement of the jaw can manifest as pain, clicking, difficulty chewing (among other things), and headaches. These can occur on either one or both sides of your face and head.

Why might your headaches be related to your jaw pain? While the answer to this is not usually just one reason, there is a near constant that is almost always found; that is muscle tightness. I say “almost” always because it is impossible to know every case, but I do know that I have not found muscle tightness in any of my clients with pain. When there is tightness in the muscles, they cause inefficient movement at your joints, which feeds into more tightness in the muscle.

To keep the cycle from continuing, your muscles may over-tighten in protest and protection. May seem counterintuitive, but without correcting the faulty action, your body employs an emergency stop…if the muscles tighten themselves enough, it might prevent further tightening. This is usually your body’s final attempt at correcting something, as it has likely made many other adjustments along the way that you weren’t even aware of, but that’s another blog! The specific muscles associated with jaw pain are closely related and attach to the skull, thus producing pain in the form of tension or muscle-induced headaches. The muscles we usually find tightness in are the trapezius, sternocleidomastoid, scalenes, masseter, and temporalis, but this is not an exhaustive list.

Where Does PT fall into Treatment?

How can physical therapy help this? Well, this is exactly what physical therapy does: it evaluates movement and diagnoses what is not moving smoothly and why. Muscles aren’t the only cause of movement pain, but they certainly are one of the major contributors. Undoubtedly, one part of your treatment plan will address muscle tightness. Other contributors are nerves, joints, and weakness, but these all interface together. Physical therapy addresses the deficits found to make movement more efficient and reduce pain.

If you experience headaches and/or jaw pain, check out the TMJ Specialists at all of our clinic locations.

Penelope works with a wide array of patient populations. Her extensive background allows her to successfully improve the quality of life for patients suffering from chronic pain conditions. She also has strong experience in neurological rehab, sports medicine, orthopedic care, and women's health.