Is your Headache a Sign of an Oral Health Problem?

Article headaches oral health

You might not expect your oral health and headaches to be related. But it turns out, there’s often a direct connection. Many headaches are caused by problems that only a dentist can treat.1

Simple cavities and infections can trigger headache pain. But usually the headaches associated with dental problems are tension headaches, says Jamison R. Spencer, DMD, MS, an expert in dental sleep medicine in Raleigh, N.C. 2. These headaches are caused by muscle strain that builds up in the mouth and jaw.1

Headaches that start with the teeth and the mouth are usually a dull pain that you feel on one or both sides of the head or all around the head. Some people experience teeth grinding at night, clicking in the jaw joints, or sore jaw muscles when they wake up in the morning.1

One potential culprit: a bad bite—when the chewing surfaces of the teeth don’t meet together properly when the jaws are shut, due to factors such as missing teeth.3 “With some people there’s a cause and effect relationship,” says Gerald J. Murphy, BS, DDS, a Nebraska-based dentist and an expert in craniofacial pain.4

When your bite is off, the muscles have to work harder to chew food and they can become strained. Because jaws rarely get rested, the strain becomes constant and eventually causes pain.1

Pain can be felt in the teeth or jaw or it can radiate or “refer” to other sites in your head. That’s due to the trigeminal nerve, which controls sensation in the face as well as functions like biting and chewing.5 Pain in one branch of the nerve can activate other branches of the nerve. So even though the problem started in your mouth, you may feel pain in your head, such as behind the eyes, in the temples, or in the forehead.3

Making matters worse, the muscle tension involved with oral health problems can spread to other areas of the body. For instance, when the muscles in your mouth or head clench, your neck muscles may also contract and may become overworked and painful.4

Headache pain can also come from grinding your teeth at night, which overworks your jaw muscles, as well as temporomandibular joint disorders (TMD). These are problems associated with the jaw joint, called TMJ, often signaled by popping or clicking in the jaw. “They can upset the musculature, causing headaches, often severe ones, which can be misdiagnosed as migraine headaches,” says Dr. Spencer.2

If you suspect that one of these problems is the source of your headaches, see a dentist to evaluate your bite, jaw muscles and the TMJ. Correcting your bite with braces or other orthodontic appliance may be needed, or you may need other dental work.3

There’s growing evidence that teeth grinding, also called bruxism, may result from obstructive sleep apnea, when the soft tissue in the throat obstructs your airways, which is often marked by loud snoring.6 7 “People with sleep apnea may be moving their jaw back and forth to help open the airway,” says Dr. Murphy. Fortunately bruxism—and the underlying apnea—is often successfully treated by wearing an oral appliance that a dentist can provide. The result: fewer headaches and better overall health.4