The Possible Link Between Your Headache and Your Toothache

If you are dealing with both a headache and a toothache, it's natural to wonder if the two symptoms are related. And they may be: Your toothache might be triggering your headache. Or, both symptoms may be due to an underlying health problem, like a sinus infection or temporomandibular joint dysfunction (TMJ).

Let's look into some possible headache and toothache connections, and what this may mean for your care.

Toothache Triggering a Migraine

There are many possible reasons why a tooth might ache, including cavities, cracked teeth, or impacted wisdom teeth. If these conditions are left untreated, a person may also develop a migraine.

Migraines are throbbing, usually one-sided headaches that can be associated with nausea, vomiting, and/or sensitivity to light or sound.

Common issues that can cause a tooth ache and migraine.

Verywell / Ellen Lindner

Experts believe that the connection between toothaches and migraines is the trigeminal nerve, a cranial nerve that controls facial and eye movements and sensations. The trigeminal nerve provides feeling to most of your face, including your upper and lower lip, teeth, and gums.

The trigeminal nerve is believed to play a significant role in the development of migraines. In this case, pain from the toothache is thought to irritate the nerve and trigger a migraine.

Referred Tooth Pain to Your Head 

In addition to a toothache triggering a migraine, tooth decay or advanced gum disease can "refer" pain to the head.

Referred pain means that you feel a painful sensation in a different area of your body than the body part actually causing the pain. Again, this is due to the many nerve connections (via the trigeminal nerve) that connect the teeth and other facial structures to the brain.

It's common for a person to go see their healthcare provider for tension-type headaches or migraines when they really are experiencing a dental problem.

Bruxism

One classic example of referred pain to the head is bruxism, a disorder in which a person routinely clenches or grinds their teeth. This often occurs at night.

The headache resulting from bruxism is often described as a dull pain that wraps around the head or occurs behind the eyes. Other symptoms of bruxism are sore teeth and jaw muscles, clicking in the jaw joint, and trouble opening and closing the mouth.

Cavernous Sinus Thrombosis

Very rarely, an untreated dental condition may cause cavernous sinus thrombosis. This is a serious, life-threatening blood clot in the cavernous sinus, a space in the brain, behind the eye. The clot is usually caused when an infection in the face or head spreads to the brain.

A main symptom of the condition is a severe headache, often felt behind the eye or on the forehead. In addition to a severe headache, other symptoms of cavernous sinus thrombosis include:

  • High fever
  • A weakness of the eye movement
  • Eyelid swelling
  • Eyeball protrusion (called proptosis)

Underlying Health Problems

There are some conditions that may cause both a headache and toothache, but are not actually related to a dental or headache disorder.

Sinus Infection

A sinus infection may cause discomfort in one or several teeth, especially in your upper teeth located below the maxillary sinus, which is behind your cheekbones.

In addition to teeth pain, a common symptom of a sinus infection is a sinus headache that becomes worse when bending forward.

Other signs and symptoms of sinus infection include:

  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Nasal congestion and yellow or green mucus
  • Ear pressure or fullness
  • Bad breath

Temporomandibular Joint Disorder

Temporomandibular joint (TMJ or TMD) disorder is another condition that can cause toothaches. TMJ is a problem within the jaw joint, which is located in front of your ear, and the muscles surrounding it.

Besides toothaches, TMJ often causes headaches. These headaches are usually described as an aching pain that starts near the ear and moves towards the jaw, temple, or neck. They are usually triggered by jaw motions, like chewing or opening and closing the mouth.

Trigeminal Neuralgia

Trigeminal neuralgia is a pain disorder resulting from compression or damage of the trigeminal nerve. This disorder causes sudden attacks of excruciating, stabbing or shock-like facial pain, almost always only on one side of the face.

In many cases, the pain is felt along the upper or lower jaw, which is why people sometimes see their dentist first. They mistakenly believe they are suffering from an abscessed tooth. In fact, it's not uncommon for a person to have one or more unnecessary root canals or tooth extractions before receiving a diagnosis of trigeminal neuralgia.

When to See Your Healthcare Provider

If you experience a new toothache and/or headache, be sure to see your healthcare provider. Figuring out the underlying diagnosis can be tricky, even for your healthcare provider, so it's important to be persistent about finding the cause.

For instance, if you still have no relief after undergoing dental procedures for toothaches, talk to your healthcare provider about seeing a headache specialist, neurologist, or ear, nose, and throat doctor.

Summary

Figuring out whether your headache and toothache are related can be complicated. A toothache can trigger a migraine, or a dental condition like bruxism may "refer" pain to the head.

In addition, there are some conditions that can cause pain that are not actually related to a dental or primary headache disorder. These include sinus infections, TMJ, and trigeminal neuralgia. Working with your healthcare provider is key to determining the underlying cause and source of your pain.

A Word From Verywell

In the end, getting to the bottom of your tooth and/or head pain can be a tedious, challenging process. But rest assured: Once diagnosed, you can move forward with a treatment plan.

That plan may be as simple as getting a cavity filled or taking an antibiotic for a sinus infection. It can also be more complex, but doable, such as wearing a night guard or avoiding triggers for bruxism.

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8 Sources
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