Sore jaw or unexplained head pain? It Could be Related to a Sleep Disorder

In our practice, being a dentist means being a detective. Sometimes patients come to us with pain but they don’t know what’s causing it and it’s our job to figure out the source of the pain – and how to eliminate it – together. Two of the most common symptoms we encounter are pain or soreness in the jaw and unexplained headaches. Both of these may be caused by a sleep disorder that we can help relieve.

It Could Be Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea could be the cause of your unexplained headaches.

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) occurs when airflow is impeded during sleep, leading to pauses in breathing that can last anywhere from several seconds to a couple minutes. Impeded airflow means less oxygen getting into the body, which frequently causes hypoxemia, or lower than ideal oxygen saturation levels. This, in turn, causes the body to widen blood vessels, which can lead to headaches.

How do you know if you suffer from sleep apnea? One way is to ask a bed partner to observe you sleeping and report any snoring or pauses in breathing, both signs of sleep apnea. You may also notice the following:

  • Excessive daytime sleepiness or fatigue
  • Poor memory or fuzzy thinking
  • Waking at night gasping for breath
  • Waking with dry mouth
  • Weight gain
  • Dark circles under your eyes

Speak with your doctor if you suspect you have OSA so you can be properly diagnosed.

It Could Be Clenching and/or Grinding

While many people have no idea they suffer from sleep apnea, because they can’t monitor their own sleep, still more people have no idea that they clench and/or grind their teeth during sleep. Clenching the jaw and grinding the teeth both put a lot of stress on the jaw joint, or temporomandibular joint (TMJ), and in time can lead to TMJ disorder (TMD). Two of the most common symptoms of TMD are pain in the jaw and unexplained headaches.

Clenching and grinding (also known as bruxism) can lead to TMD, but it also works the other way – TMD may be the cause of clenching and grinding. One patient we worked with, Meredith, came to us complaining of pain on the left side of her face. It turned out she was grinding her teeth at night because of stress from pain in her sacroiliac (SI) joint, which is located in the hip area! We were able to help relieve the pain in her face by first addressing the pain in the SI joint, as that was the cause of her bruxism.

Discussing Your Symptoms

As dentists with a holistic, or what we call integrative, approach to patient care, we’re able to help our patients with more than just fillings or orthodontic treatment. We encourage you to discuss the aches and pains you’re experiencing with your dentist, even if they don’t seem related to oral health at first, or, if you’re in the Chicago area, to come visit us at TMJ and Sleep Therapy Centre of Chicago or The Centre For Integrative Orthodontics.