Migraine sufferers know how hard it is to pinpoint the root cause of the condition. Often, just getting a migraine diagnosis is a complicated undertaking, involving many tests and specialist consultations. And that’s only the first step, since the underlying cause can still be unclear.
If there is one thing the clinical studies and research going back decades reveal, it’s that migraine is never simple. Some schools of thought indicate that for some people, headaches might even be caused by dental problems, specifically the wisdom teeth.
When we have pain or discomfort in one area of the body, our natural inclination is to compensate by making a different area work harder. This can set up a chain reaction, creating pain in apparently unrelated physical regions. Pain receptors in the head, neck, face and mouth are all interlinked, with one having an effect on another. The trigeminal nerve nerve (commonly associated with migraine headaches), for instance, runs past the temples and extends down to the jaw area. Inflammation towards the back of the mouth, often caused by impacted wisdom teeth, can affect this nerve and cause headaches.
Physical Problems Caused by Wisdom Teeth
Wisdom teeth can cause problems at all stages of their growth, resulting in facial pain, swollen gums or difficulty chewing or biting. If you get pain in your shoulder or back, aching sensations in your jaw muscles, neck or eye pain or even a ringing in your ears, it could indicate that headaches stem from dental problems.
A common, and painful condition arises when wisdom teeth become impacted. Impaction results when there isn’t room in your mouth for the emerging wisdom teeth to grow, or when the teeth are incorrectly developed in the jaw, such as at an angle, causing them to press against other teeth as they try to grow. The result is extremely painful, and the only cure is to have the teeth removed. The condition won’t resolve by itself, and may become increasingly worse over time. Indications your wisdom teeth may be impacted include:
- Chewing difficulties. Maybe your jaw feels tight so you can’t open your mouth properly, or you don’t have sufficient side-to-side movement for effective chewing.
- Gum problems. Swollen gums, bad breath or bleeding gums can all indicate impacted wisdom teeth.
- Sudden onset of headaches. If you don’t have a history of migraine, the sudden appearance of this type of head pain may be down to changes in your mouth as wisdom teeth become impacted.
- Pain in the jaw. Usually located at the back of the mouth, where wisdom teeth can press against nerves, other teeth or bone joints.
- Infections. Abscesses can occur more frequently in the pouch that forms under the gum where the tooth is trying to push through.
Temporomandibular Joint Disorders (TMD)
You may hear this condition incorrectly described as TMJ (temporomandibular joint) but that refers only to the joint, which is the hinge connecting the jaw to the skull. Incorrectly growing wisdom teeth can affect this hinge, as can pressure on the joint from teeth grinding or clenching and stress, which causes you to tighten both face and jaw muscles.
The symptoms of TMD can be wide-ranging and painful. Commonly you may experience any or all of the following:
- Difficulty chewing
- Popping or clicking noises when you open your mouth or chew
- Difficulty opening your mouth wide
- Upper and lower teeth feeling misaligned
- Upper shoulder or neck pain
Traditional treatments depend on the cause but can include anxiety medication or antidepressants, a night guard which you wear at night to help prevent damage from tooth grinding or a splint to help correct your bite. Other dental work that can help includes replacing any missing teeth, crowns, bridges, and braces or the removal of impacted wisdom teeth.
Other treatments for TMD include transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) or trigger point injections, both of which are also sometimes used in the treatment of migraines.
We tend to keep our doctors and dentists separate. Some dentists ask what medication you’re taking or conditions you’re suffering from before they undertake a procedure, but that’s normally as far as the two specialists link up. For this reason, you may need to make the first suggestion that your headache may stem from dental problems.
Speak to your doctor and dentist about the two conditions and ask if they may be related, especially if your current migraine medication isn’t working too well.
A complete dental examination may reveal problems with wisdom teeth that have so far not been explored. The outcome will either benefit you or not, but if the root cause of migraine is dental related, fixing teeth problems could reduce or eliminate headache attacks.