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What kind of dental problems can cause headaches and oral pain?

Headaches and oral pain commonly accompany each other when patients are suffering from various oral conditions. Tension type headaches account for 90% of headaches and are described as a tightening or pressing radiating pain that is usually bilateral and can last from minutes to days. Diagnosing the cause of the headache when related to oral pain can be done by your dentist. Oral pain is often times associated with headaches due to the neural pathways of the trigeminal nerve which provides sensory information from our face (including the mouth) to our brain. The trigeminal nerve has many pathways and when one region is activated other regions may respond as well, this is known as referred pain. The following list will describe the most common causes of oral pain associated with headaches:

  • An infected tooth or a periodontal (gum) condition that has deteriorated. A thorough dental exam is needed in order to localize the tooth in question. Patients can usually point to an area that seems to be the source of the pain and headache. The relief of the condition will depend on the diagnosis. Often times procedures such as a dental extraction, root canal therapy or periodontal (gum) treatment will be necessary.
  • Another common cause of oral pain that presents as a headache is bruxism or clenching and grinding of the teeth. The constant strain on the teeth leads to overworked jaw muscles and the joint of the jaw (the temporo-mandibular joint). This can lead to inflammation of the ligaments around the teeth and muscle fatigue which presents as radiating headaches. If this goes untreated, in the long term, tooth fracture, chronic muscular pain and temporomandibular disorders (TMD) are possible complications. Often times a custom fabricated nightguard is recommended if the bruxism is suspected to occur during sleep, this helps relieve the pressure on the teeth, joints and musculature.
  • The way in which our upper and lower teeth join together when biting down is known as occlusion. In cases of malocclusion, where the teeth do not line up correctly, some teeth may be bearing larger loads than others which can lead to muscular and temporomandibular pain accompanied with headaches. This may be due to the non-ideal positioning of the teeth or jaws. Orthodontic treatment may be recommended in order to position the teeth in a harmonious occlusion. In more severe cases of jaw malalignment, jaw surgery (orthognathic surgery) may be recommended as well.

Ibuprofen (Advil) and Acetaminophen (Tylenol) are common over the counter medications which can help temporarily reduce headaches associated with oral pain. A preventative approach is always preferred, routine dental exams can help localize these problems before they turn into larger issues and prevent headaches, pain and emergency visits to the dentist.

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