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Physical Therapy Can Effectively Treat Jaw Pain, Headaches & Vertigo

The jaw is an area that doesn’t generally get much attention as some other parts of the body, but jaw problems are more common than you probably think. A class of jaw‐related issues called temporomandibular disorders affect millions of Americans each year, and the bothersome symptoms that result often require treatment.

The temporomandibular joint (TMJ) is a hinge joint that connects the part of the skull directly in front of the ears (temporal bone) to the lower jaw (mandible). It allows you move to your jaw up and down and from one side to the other, which is necessary for talking and chewing. The term “temporomandibular disorder,” or TMD, is used to describe a variety of conditions that cause pain and dysfunction in this joint and the facial muscles that surround it.

TMDs affect over 10 million Americans, with a much higher prevalence in women than men. The definite cause of TMDs is still unclear, but some theories suggest that they are caused by injury in that region, grinding or clenching teeth, osteoarthritis, or stress. TMD symptoms vary from patient to patient, but most report one or more of the following:

  • Jaw pain or tenderness on one or both sides of the jaw
  • Difficulty opening and closing the mouth
  • Popping, clicking, or locking of the jaw
  • Earaches or ringing in the ear

TMDs often occur with neck pain and headaches or vertigo

Another notable characteristic of TMDs is that many patients experience neck issues in addition to painful jaw symptoms. In some cases, neck‐related problems can manifest as headaches, and research has shown that up to 56% of patients who are treated for headaches also have a TMD. Experts believe that this relationship works in both directions, meaning that TMDs can contribute to the development of headaches, and vice versa. Neck issues and headaches can also mimic muscle pain in the jaw muscles, and it may therefore be difficult to distinguish the two conditions. Therefore, it’s often best to treat TMDs, neck pain, and headaches together.

TMDs have also been associated with vertigo, which is feeling a sense of rotation or movement when the body is stationary. Although the relationship between these disorders has been debated, some research has shown that those with a TMD have a stronger chance of experiencing vertigo than those without a TMD. This may be due to the proximity of the middle ear (which is likely involved in TMDs) and the inner ear (which is involved in vertigo). Common symptoms of vertigo include dizziness, nausea/vomiting, balance issues, headache, and fatigue.

Red flags for jaw pain, headaches, or vertigo

As movement experts trained to identify connections between various complications, physical therapists can effectively treat any of these potentially related issues. However, in some cases, care from another medical professional may be required if a more serious condition is present. Below are some important red flags related to jaw pain, headaches, and vertigo to be aware of:

  • New onset hearing loss in only one ear
  • Seeing double
  • Facial or limb weakness
  • New onset headache
  • Abnormal eye movements
  • Bowel or bladder dysfunction
  • Extreme bruising, swelling, or throbbing pain
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Symptoms arising after recent head or neck trauma

If any of these are present, it may be necessary to see your primary care physician or go to an urgent care center or the emergency department for a comprehensive evaluation. In most other cases, we encourage you to visit us to get started on a treatment program right away.

In our next post, we’ll explain how physical therapy can effectively treat TMDs.

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