Traumatic brain injury (TBI) is not as uncommon as you might think. There are many circumstances under which you might sustain a TBI that you might not imagine. Partly, it’s the name: it sounds so serious, whereas you think that what you experienced was so minor. But the truth is that you can sustain a mild TBI (known as a concussion) in circumstances where you didn’t crack your skull, hit your head, or lose consciousness.

After your TBI, you might experience a number of negative effects, including sleep apnea and headaches. Headaches and jaw pain after hitting your head should be considered a warning sign that you got a TBI, but it may also be a warning sign that you developed temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ or TMD).

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What Is Post-Traumatic Headache?

The definition of post-traumatic headache is a headache that starts within seven days following trauma or injury. Typically, this is because of the brain injury. Brain injury can be caused by direct contact with the skull, but it can also be caused by any accident which jostles the brain, causing it to hit against the side of the skull. The most common causes of these injuries include violence, falls, car accidents, even boating accidents.

You may not think you sustained a TBI during your accident because it seemed relatively minor, but you should be on the lookout for common TBI symptoms like:

  • Moderate to severe pulsating head pain
  • Worsening headaches related to physical or mental exertion
  • Difficulty thinking or remembering
  • Changes to personality
  • Anxiety
  • Vision problems
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Neck pain
  • Vertigo or dizziness

Post-traumatic headaches will typically resolve within a few months after your accident. However, they sometimes persist, becoming chronic headaches. Sometimes, chronic headaches after an accident may not be related to brain injury, but to jaw injury.

Is TMJ to Blame?

Many of the same accidents that could cause TBI can also cause TMJ. TMJ can be caused by a direct blow to the jaw or to the head, but like TBI it can also be caused by whiplash injuries where there was no blow. The same accident can produce a concussion and jaw pain, even though the two injuries are not directly related.

Post-traumatic headaches and TMJ are so closely related that many of the mechanisms overlap. For example, trigeminal nerve activation and neck injury are cited as causes of both conditions. However, it’s important to note that TMJ has no immediate effects on the brain. In a popular theory, though, TMJ can have long-term effects on the brain, triggering what is known as central sensitization. This is a phenomenon where the brain learns to interpret non-pain signals as pain. Some think this is the reason why TMJ can trigger other chronic overlapping pain conditions (COPC), such as migraine and fibromyalgia.

If you were in an accident where you might have sustained a brain injury, start by getting checked out for TBI. But you might start to suspect TMJ is the true cause of your headaches if:

  • Exams and imaging show no evidence of brain damage
  • Your headaches don’t respond to conventional care
  • You experience other TMJ symptoms such as tooth wear, teeth clenching, and jaw pain

The good news is that neuromuscular dentistry treatment can easily be used to address your symptoms without interfering with other treatments. The treatments are drug-free, so there’s no risk of drug side effects including addiction or dependency. And the treatment can resolve many related symptoms.

If you think you might have developed TMJ after an accident in Detroit, please call (248) 480-0085 today for an appointment with TMJ dentist Dr. Jeffrey S. Haddad at the Michigan Center for TMJ & Sleep Wellness.