Tension headaches are estimated to affect close to 1 in 3 Australians, they have a myriad of causes, from hormones, caffeine (or reduction of), low iron, dehydration, sinus congestion through to muscle tension.
Headaches are awful, but rarely have a threatening cause. One of the most common causes is simply from muscle tension. Muscle tension is generally builds up over a period of time and depending on the severity, may take some time to unwind and return your muscles to their more natural state.
There are a number of muscles around the head and neck that can cause tension headaches, but you may be surprised to learn that the jaw muscle can be a major contributor.
Yes your jaw, a part of your body that you largely ignore is actually amazingly strong and could have more to do with your headaches than you ever imagined. Your jaw, mouth and neck are made up of a variety of muscles, the strongest of which, the Masseter, is pound for pound, the strongest muscle in the body.
Some of us are jaw clenchers, others are night-time grinders or even mouth breathers, if you’re any one of these, you're putting extra stress on your jaw, facial and neck muscles.
Jaw clenchers and teeth grinders may find that they get headaches on one side of their head, near the ear, an area known as the temporalis. However, jaw clenchers, grinders and mouth breathers alike may also experience pain at the back of the head where the neck begins or even radiating into the front by the forehead.
You may not know that you clench your jaw or grind your teeth, many of us don’t realise we do any of these things until we get into trouble. Often the first person to tell you that you grind your teeth at night is your dentist, and that’s only after you’ve done some good damage to your teeth.
If you’re unsure if you clench, check in with how your jaw feels? Is it tight? Are your teeth clenched?
Check in with your breathing too, at rest you should be breathing in and out of your nose. If you’re not, you’re a mouth breather and overusing all of your muscles around your jaw as well as your accessory breathing muscles in your neck. Also check how you breathe during moderate exercise, unless you’re sprinting for your life, you should still be using your nose.
If you do associate with any of this, create some awareness around your breathing. It may sound strange as it’s something we expect to do with no thought, but changing some patterns creates awareness.
You can check out your teeth too, do you have nice pointy canine teeth or have you ground them down? If so, you’re grinding your teeth so it’s not a surprise you're getting a headache.
If you have realised that this is you, here are some really helpful tips to get you out of these bad habits:
Practice breathing through your nose, not only can this break the habit of mouth breathing, but focusing on some slow nasal breaths can also work as a relaxation technique so you may find your jaw relaxes too.
Position your youngest on the roof of your mouth, just behind your front teeth
This should naturally create a space between your upper and lower back teeth
Now slowly breath through your nose for 5 breaths (in and out)
This is also a great technique to help recent recovery yourself when you are highly focused on an activity.
Check in once an hour as to your mouth position and how you are breathing, eventually it will be come more natural an you can reduce or eliminate the forced checkins
Getting rid of the stressors in your life can have a huge impact on reducing your clenching and grinding. But if you can’t get rid of those children stressing you out, or your toxic boss, then try simple relaxation techniques such as meditation.
Massage can help relieve muscle tension and therefore the headaches. Your therapist will identify the tight muscles and help work with you to release them. At Muscle Medicine we can specifically target the neck and head muscles as well as the TMJ. Our Senior Therapists are trained in internal TMJ release and can assess for developing issues. We may recommend a series of treatments or further action if we think you will benefit such as seeing a dentist or an ENT specialist.
You may need to visit your dentist, especially if you’re causing damage to your teeth, they will likely supply you with a tailor made dental splint to wear at night. Not the most sexy, but better than a cracked tooth.
If you do all of a sudden start to experience headaches, or if it’s accompanied by fever, stiff neck, weakness, a change in vision, change of behaviour or a change in sensation down one side of your body, make sure to head straight to your GP.