July 21, 2003 (Nashville) -- People who suffer from frequent tension headaches might be better off seeking help from their dentist rather than their doctor.
Dental treatments for headaches are highly effective and are beginning to gain credibility within medical circles, oral-facial pain specialist Keith A. Yount, DDS, told a group of dentists attending the Academy of General Dentistry annual meeting Friday. So much credibility, in fact, that one of the nation's largest headache groups recently recognized dentists as having a role in the diagnosis and treatment of people with chronic headaches.
Yount tells WebMD he believes that relatively simple dental treatments can help a significant percentage of people with chronic tension headaches.
"Neurologists have been the gurus of the headache world," he says. "In the past, everyone was sent to a neurologist for headache pain, but that is slowly changing. If the patient doesn't suffer from migraines, there isn't much a neurologist can do."
Tension Headaches Linked to Jaw
It is believed that 45 million Americans have disabling, chronic headaches, and the economic costs due to job absenteeism, lost production, and medical expenses are estimated to be as high as $50 billion annually.
In his Friday presentation, the Raleigh, N.C., dentist said research is showing that tension headaches are commonly linked to oral causes. He cited one such study in which headache patients treated by dentists specializing in oral-facial pain had better outcomes than patients treated by neurologists.
"People with headaches still don't know that [dentists] can help them, and you are the leading edge of selling that idea," he said, adding that because dentists tend to see their patients more often than doctors, they could take a leading role in diagnosis.
Mouthpiece May Treat Tension Headaches
In a later interview, Yount said simply normalizing the bite with a custom fitted mouth appliance resembling a football player's mouthpiece can help many headache sufferers. The mouthpieces are usually worn at night.
"If you took 100 women who had headaches from unknown causes and gave every one of them a [bite-correcting mouthpiece], I would bet that 50% of them would improve," he says. "It might eliminate their headaches altogether, but they would improve."
Tension headache pain tends to occur in 20- to 40-year-olds and can be felt anywhere on the head, the back of the neck, or the face. Tension headache pain is usually described as pressure, aching, or squeezing of mild to moderate intensity. These headaches are also more predictably associated with stress than migraines. Many people suffer an average of 15 tension headaches per month.
Yount says tension headaches with these characteristics are often caused by inflammation of the temporal muscle, which is used for chewing.
"If headache pain is very intense and migratory, the patient should probably see a neurologist," he says. "But if the pain is dull and localized, then a visit to their dentist might do more good."