Straight Teeth Talk: Tension headaches

By Mac Lee
March 6, 2012 at midnight
Updated March 5, 2012 at 9:06 p.m.

Here are some facts: Studies show that, overall, headache is the second most common problem (after back pain) seen in medical practices and the primary reason for patients to visit neurologists.

There are different classes of headaches that have different causes and different trigger points. Since my art is centered on the mouth, jaw and teeth, I will concentrate on tension headaches, which can be caused by the bite.

The science of facial pain is extremely interesting and exciting. In a couple of weeks, I will be attending my first of three of a mini-residency in the study of head and neck pain. I will be doing some very interesting activities, such as dissecting the jaw joint of a cadaver. I will report the interesting facts in next month's column.

Last month, I wrote about bad bites causing headaches, neck aches and problems with the ears, such as tinnitus, a clogged feeling and ear aches. This is a follow up article.

Muscles cause tension headaches

When you touch the head, it seems to be nothing but hard bone. This is quite deceiving because the head is loaded with some large, sophisticated muscles. These muscles are responsible making the mouth, ears and throat work normally. As you can imagine, it is quite a coordinated and complicated event. Here is what can happen when things are out of sync.

Tension headache

Put your first two fingers about an inch behind your right eyebrow, push hard and squeeze your teeth together hard. You will feel something move. The movement is caused by the temporalis muscle, which spans in three different sections from the back of the eye to back of the ear where the head meets the neck. This is a strong, flat muscle that helps move the jaw.

If the teeth don't fit together correctly, if one grinds and clinches too much, it is easy to see how this muscle can go into a special kind of spasm that produces pain, which is perceived as a tension headache of the temple or base of neck.

Many times, the pain is so dull, deep and always present, the person having the problem has no idea of what is going on.

Sinus headache

Now, put your fingers on your cheek muscles and bite down hard. You should feel some major movement. What's moving is the masseter muscle, which are huge, thick and powerful. Now, move your fingers up until you feel the cheek bone itself. That bone is the outer layer of your sinuses and where the masseter muscles attach.

These muscles can pull so hard that they cause pain at the attached area which is confused as a sinus headache.

Ear problems

The jaw joint operates just in front of the ear canal. Put both index fingers just in front of each ear and open and close. You can feel the joint move. If you feel a "pop" or one joint moves differently than the other, you could have some joint problems. This popping is not always the culprit of ear pain.

Now, this next exercise sounds a little crazy and weird, but it can help make sense to those who suffer with ear pain or tinnitus. Take your little finger, with the pad toward the joint and stick the finger in the ear snuggly and bite down. If you can feel your jaw joint pushing hard on your finger, your joint may be causing your ear problems.

A bad bite can force the lower jaw back. When this happens, the joint is pushed too far back into the ear. Many people simply adapt to this force while others have the feeling of stopped-up ears, ear pain and possible ringing of the ears.

Treatment vs. taking medication

Obviously, not all head and neck pain is because of the teeth. The self exam described above is only to give you an idea of how the bite, muscles and joints of the head need to work in harmony together. If your bite is the cause of your or your loved one's pain, only a dentist, trained in treating bite problems, can help with treatment that will relieve the problems.

If having any of these symptoms seek a dentist with not only teeth experience, but muscle experience.

Dr. Mac Lee practices in Edna. He is a international speaker to dentists and is an adviser to Dr. Mehmet Oz. To learn more, visit or call 361-782-7191



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