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When you have a headache, it’s understandable to want to do what you can to feel better quickly, if not sooner. But finding the best remedy requires figuring out what’s causing your pain in the first place.
There are a slew of potential sources that can contribute to a headache, making finding the cause of yours harder than it seems. But if you don’t have an obvious reason why you’re in pain, consider this: your teeth can cause a headache, too. The relationship between toothache and headache is actually an interesting one.
“It’s not uncommon to get headaches related to teeth since your teeth are part of the skull anatomy,” explains Julie Cho, DMD, a general dentist in New York City. You have four muscles in your jaw area — the masseter, temporalis, and two pterygoids, says Sarah Jebreil, DDS, a cosmetic dentist at Dental Esthetics in Newport Beach, CA. “When these muscles are tense or triggered, it can cause pain in the region and headaches,” she says.
Dental headaches tend to be localized to the temples, forehead, and front of the ear, but they can also radiate to the inner ear and jaws, Dr. Cho says. Think your toothache could be causing your headache? These common conditions might explain what’s going on.
Can a Toothache Cause a Headache?
There are several types of toothaches that can cause a pounding in your head, from tooth damage or infection to common conditions like bruxism. Ahead, experts weigh in on the relationship between toothache and headache, plus how to find relief.
A cracked tooth or tooth where the nerve is dying can be “extremely sensitive,” causing plenty of pain, Dr. Jebreil says. “The body wants to avoid the discomfort, so the muscles will position the jaw such that it is putting the least amount of pressure in this area,” she says. This can put the temporomandibular joint — which acts like a sliding hinge and connects your jawbone to your skull — out of balance.
As a result, “the muscles that are overfiring will cause a lot of pain and constriction of the vessels in the area, causing a headache,” Dr. Jebreil says. “The pain alone from the toothache can cause a headache as well, but that is more of a throbbing pain coming directly from the tooth itself,” she says.
How to get relief: You need to see a dentist for this, says Matthew J. Messina, DDS, assistant clinical professor at the Ohio State University College of Dentistry. “This requires a dentist to assess the situation and design a way to remove the damage and structurally replace the lost tooth structure with a filling or crown,” he says. “Providing definitive treatment in restoring the tooth to its original function will resolve the pain and eliminate the problem.”
A tooth infection can cause swelling, which leads to pain and pressure in the area. “The pressure that the infected area is feeling will definitely mimic a headache,” Dr. Jebreil says. “The tooth can also be sensitive to touch and chewing.” Tooth infections are serious, by the way — they can be deadly if they’re left untreated, Dr. Messina warns. So seeking out care from your dentist is crucial.
How to get relief: Doctors say there are a few things that need to happen to help you feel better. “The immediate emergency is often treated with antibiotics,” Dr. Messina says. But you’ll likely need some level of dental surgery to get rid of the source of the infection, he says. That can involve extracting the tooth, doing a root canal, or treating a gum infection, Dr. Messina says. He also stresses the importance of not trying to ignore a tooth infection. “An untreated dental infection can be life-threatening,” he explains.
Bruxism is a common condition where a person grinds, clenches, or gnashes their teeth, and it can happen when you’re awake or asleep, according to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR). The condition can be caused by several different factors, including stress, genetics, alcohol, caffeine, smoking, and certain medications, NIDCR says. Common symptoms include damaged teeth, jaw pain, fatigue, and headaches.
“Muscle pain from clenching and grinding of the teeth causes long-term pain in the head and neck area,” Dr. Messina says.
How to get relief:
Some people can get relief from bruxism by wearing a special mouthguard at night, Dr. Cho says. But it’s still usually best to see your dentist first, per Dr. Messina. “Treatment options include bite appliances that are worn to relax the muscles,” he says. “Occasionally, physical therapy or medications can be used as well in more severe cases.”
A bad bite
A bad bite, also known as “malocclusion,” means “the teeth are improperly positioned and throwing off the bite,” Dr. Cho says. This can lead to bruxism or a feeling of pain when you chew, Dr. Messina says — and both of those can lead to a headache.
How to get relief:
It can be tricky to know on your own if your bite is off, and you’ll want to see a dentist for an initial evaluation. From there, they may refer you to an orthodontist about next steps, Dr. Messina says. “Ultimately, changing the bite requires moving the teeth, which is done by orthodontics that can predictably improve the bite,” he says.
When to See Your Dentist
If you’re having headaches that you suspect (or know) are caused by your teeth, it’s important to see your dentist for proper care. And if you’re struggling with a tooth infection, you’ll need to be seen and treated sooner rather than later.
By the way, don’t feel weird about seeing a dentist about your headache — they’ve seen this before. “Dentists are trained to evaluate the big picture and help get a person to the right professional for treatment,” Dr. Messina says.