Getting to the Root of Headache Disorders at the Dentist’s Office

Headaches happen to everyone; no one is immune. And while the pain associated with them can range from mild to blinding, when they occur frequently, they are a symptom of a headache disorder that can wreak havoc on the sufferer’s quality of life. 

Defined as occurring every or nearly every day, millions of Americans suffer from headache disorders, creating a pandemic of sorts much different than the one the world is experiencing today. Whether a headache disorder or migraines, one thing is for sure, both impact a person not only physically but financially, socially, and emotionally too.

The vast majority of people suffering from headache disorders are managed with medications. And while medications are relatively effective at eliminating the pain associated with a headache, they don’t resolve the underlying cause. And you may be surprised to learn that some headache disorders stem from the jaws and teeth. 

That’s why some dentists, like those at Mill Point Dental, have completed advanced post-graduate training to specialize in diagnosing and treating occlusions and the workings of the jaw. 

Oral-Related Causes of Headaches

There are several oral-related causes for headaches. The most common you’ve probably heard about is tooth grinding and clenching, also known as bruxism. Other causes can include TMJ disorders, sleep apnea, or if a tooth is out of alignment. A lesser understood reason for headache disorders is a restricted envelope of function. This happens when the jaw cannot move as freely as it wants and is stuck in an unnatural position. This position causes the muscles to continually fire in an attempt to find a place to rest.

Understanding the Restricted Envelope of Function

The way your teeth fit together, or occlusion, when eating or at rest has a significant impact on your jaw. Imagine clenching your fist all day long. Eventually, your hand and arm muscles will fatigue, sending a signal to your brain that you need to relax. Now imagine there is no way to relax because you literally cannot open your palm. Other problems begin to present due to the constant state of tension in your fist. Now take this example and move it to the jaw and teeth. If the teeth aren’t correctly aligned and the jaw cannot relax, headaches are frequent, painful, and debilitating.

But why aren’t the teeth appropriately aligned? The cause of misalignment can vary. Some reasons include premature loss of baby teeth, improper tongue posture, and diets primarily consisting of soft foods. In addition, if there isn’t enough space between the upper and lower teeth, the lower jaw can become restricted and unable to move into a natural resting position. 

In the past, premolars were removed in many adolescents before getting braces to prevent overcrowding. But experts agree that removing these teeth retracts or pulls back the teeth, making a smaller container for the tongue and increasing the chances of snoring and sleep issues, and TMJ disorders. So today, only around 5% of people have their premolars removed. 

Treating Oral-Related Headache Disorders

Depending on the cause, treatment recommendations for headache disorders will vary. And finding the cause isn’t always black and white. Patient communication is critical for a dentist to unlock clues that will lead to a formal diagnosis. For a dentist, the more clues they have into things like the time of day the headaches occur or wear patterns on the teeth, the better. 

The first step experienced dentists may take when addressing headache disorders is to prescribe a deprogrammer if the cause is uncertain. This custom-made device looks like a retainer and is worn all day – except when eating. The purpose of a deprogrammer is to relax the jaw muscles. The deprogrammer works by removing tooth contact points, thereby eliminating interferences caused by where teeth touch (envelope of function) so the jaw can realign itself into a natural position. The treatment takes a few weeks to work, but it is an excellent diagnostic tool that specialists like Dr. Mike and Dr. Eric use in clinic to help patients uncover the mystery behind chronic headaches. Once they know the true cause, they can make further recommendations that may include orthodontia or comprehensive restorative treatment to realign the envelope of function. Of course, surgery may also be necessary, depending on the case.

At Mill Point Dental, we believe in solving problems so patients can smile for life. While band-aids like medication and Botox can help reduce headache pain, they don’t address the root cause of the problem. If you are experiencing chronic headaches and want to identify and treat the underlying cause, schedule an appointment. By working with an experienced dentist you trust, the mysteries surrounding your headache disorder can be solved, bringing you much-needed relief.