Tension headaches are common and may occur when a person clenches their jaw. People may clench their jaw more often if they have bruxism, which is when a person unconsciously clenches or grinds their teeth.

For many people, bruxism is mild and does not need treatment. Severe bruxism can cause a person to develop damaged teeth, jaw pain, and other symptoms.

Additionally, headaches are a common symptom of bruxism, and experts suggest that jaw clenching may cause tension headaches.

This article discusses the link between jaw clenching and headaches. It also outlines the symptoms, causes, and treatment of tension headaches in relation to bruxism.

To discover more evidence-based information and resources for headache and migraine, visit our dedicated hub.

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A number of factors may play a role in tension headaches, including:

Bruxism may also play a role in the development of tension headaches.

One 2021 systemic review analyzed a number of studies into the associations between bruxism and headaches. It concluded that people with awake bruxism were between 5–17 times more likely to have tension headaches than people without bruxism.

If a person has a tension headache associated with jaw clenching they may experience mild to moderate pain.

The pain may feel like something is applying constant pressure to the:

  • front of the face
  • head
  • neck

People most commonly experience pain that occurs on both sides of the head.

A person with a tension headache may develop unusual sensitivity to light and sound during the headache. However, they commonly do not experience a pre-headache aura that is associated with migraine.

There are a number of factors that may play a role in the development of bruxism. These include psychological factors, such as:

Other factors may include:

Tension headaches may be an effect or symptom of bruxism.

Other possible causes of tension headaches include:

  • mental or emotional conflict
  • stress
  • depression
  • anxiety
  • skipping meals
  • not enough sleep
  • sleep apnea

According to the American Migraine Foundation, when diagnosing a tension headache a doctor may carry out the following steps:

  • review the person’s medical history and their family medical history
  • evaluate the person’s specific symptoms
  • conduct a physical examination

When evaluating a person’s symptoms a doctor may ask the person about the frequency, intensity, triggers, and duration of their headaches.

They may also ask them about their sleeping patterns and the amount of sleep they have been getting.

Additionally, a healthcare professional may ask a person about their stress levels.

A doctor would also need to determine whether there are any serious underlying causes of the tension headaches. This is because these headaches can share symptoms with other, more serious conditions, such as structural brain lesions.

A person may need to speak with a dentist if they suspect that they are experiencing tension headaches as a result of bruxism. A dentist may use diagnostic tests including:

  • reviewing a person’s medical history
  • conducting a dental examination
  • ordering a sleep study, in which a healthcare professional monitors a person in their sleep to help detect sleep disorders and sleep bruxism
  • taking X-rays of the jaw and teeth

The first step in treating a tension headache is to treat any specific conditions that may be causing the headache, including bruxism.

If a person’s tension headache is not associated with another disorder, a doctor may suggest using certain medications to treat it. For example, a person may treat headache pain with over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers, including:

A person may also make use of specific therapies to treat chronic tension headaches. These include:

If a person has infrequent tension headaches, they may ease their symptoms at home by having a hot shower or applying moist heat to the back of their neck. Other approaches that may ease symptoms include:

Treating bruxism

A person may also need to treat bruxism, to help them stop clenching their jaw.

If a person has bruxism that does not occur due to another condition, treatment aims to:

  • prevent the progression of tooth wearing and damage
  • reduce teeth grinding sounds
  • improve muscle discomfort

Treatments for sleep bruxism include:

  • Improving sleep hygiene: This includes ensuring a person follows certain guidance in relation to their approach to sleep. Good sleep hygiene includes:
    • quitting smoking
    • avoiding drinking coffee or alcohol at night
    • limiting physical or mental activity before going to bed
    • ensuring the room is quiet and dark when going to bed
  • Splint therapy: During splint therapy, a person wears an occlusal splint, which is similar to a mouth guard, that covers their teeth when they go to sleep. This approach is often the first-line strategy for preventing dental grinding noise and tooth wear in sleep bruxism.

A person may also wish to try some lifestyle changes to help improve their bruxism symptoms. These include:

  • regularly visiting the dentist
  • trying relaxing activities, such as yoga and meditation
  • trying counseling to help reduce stress
  • avoiding caffeine, alcohol, and smoking
  • setting reminders to keep the teeth apart to avoid jaw clenching and teeth grinding throughout the day

If a person has ongoing symptoms of tension headaches they should speak with a doctor, particularly if the symptoms interfere with their daily life.

It is also important that a person speaks with a doctor because these symptoms are often similar to those associated with more serious conditions, such as structural brain lesions.

It is particularly important that a person visits a doctor if they develop new or different headache symptoms. They should also visit a doctor if they have progressive headaches that increase in frequency.

Bruxism is a condition that causes a person to clench their jaw or grind their teeth. When a person clenches their jaw, it may cause tension headaches.

Other causes of tension headaches include stress, depression, and anxiety.

A person may treat the symptoms of tension headaches with OTC pain relievers. Other possible treatments for tension headaches include biofeedback therapy, relaxation training, meditation, and CBT.

People may also wish to treat their bruxism to avoid developing jaw clenching headaches. Treatment for bruxism includes improving sleep hygiene and splint therapy.

A person should speak with a doctor for further information and advice about tension headaches and bruxism.