Nagging dental problems can be a headache. But sometimes, a trip to your dentist can make your head throb, too.
While hard stats on dentist-induced headaches are hard to come by, "getting a headache after dental work or a dental cleaning is not uncommon," says Alla Al-Habib, MD, a neurologist with Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Plano.
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While this head pain can be annoying, it likely isn't anything serious.
Here are some of the most common reasons why you get a headache after dental work and what you can do to feel better.
If you consistently get headaches or migraines after dental work, let your dentist know the next time you see them. They can make adjustments to your treatment or offer advice on how to avoid this issue.
1. Dental Visits Make You Anxious
This anxiety alone can leave your head throbbing in pain. "Stress and anxiety associated with dental visits can cause tension headaches," Dr. Al-Habib says.
Poor sleep could come into play, too. If anxiety keeps you awake the night before your dentist appointment, that could lead to a tension headache later in the day, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
Anxiety and lack of sleep can also trigger migraines for some people, per the NIH.
First, give yourself a pat on the back for keeping up with your oral health despite your fears.
To help make your next appointment more comfortable, share your fears with your dentist. They may be able to adjust your treatment or the speed that they work.
You can also bring headphones and listen to music in the dental chair, which has been proven to soothe nerves, per a January 2022 study in Acta Biomedica.
2. You Were Clenching Your Teeth
You may do it while in the waiting room, before the hygienist does your cleaning or once your cleaning or procedure is over.
This can "strain your jaw muscles, resulting in a headache," Dr. Al-Habib says.
Again, talk to your dentist or hygienist about your nerves to see if they can make any adjustments to your treatment.
You can also try other stress-relief techniques at your next appointment, like squeezing a stress ball or visualizing yourself in a happy place to take the edge off, per the American Dental Association.
3. Your Jaw Is Strained
When you're at the dentist, you often have to keep your mouth open wide for long periods of time.
But holding this position for a while can strain your jaw and cause the surrounding muscles to spasm, leading to a headache.
"The temporomandibular joint (TMJ) connects your jawbone to your skull, and excessive strain on this joint can cause tension headaches," Dr. Al-Habib says.
These headaches often feel like a tight band squeezing around your head, and you might also notice your jaw feels sore or fatigued.
Apply a warm compress to your achy jaw for 15 to 20 minutes. "This can help relax your muscles and reduce inflammation," to help ease tension headache pain, Dr. Al-Habib says.
Gently massaging the area with your fingertips can also help relieve tension by increasing circulation, she adds. Or, try some jaw exercises to loosen those muscles.
4. The Numbing Meds Gave You a Headache
In rare cases, the numbing medicine dentists use on your mouth before a filling, crown application or other procedure can cause a headache.
Around 2 percent of people get a headache after receiving an oral numbing medicine for dental work, according to a December 2021 review in the Journal of Dental Anesthesia and Pain Medicine.
These medicines often have ingredients like norepinephrine, which can cause a temporary spike in blood pressure that can cause a headache, Dr. Al-Habib says.
Headaches from oral numbing shots are usually short-lived and will go away on their own, Dr. Al-Habib says.
You can speed the process along by drinking plenty of water and resting in a dark, quiet room to minimize sensory stimulation, she adds.
When to See a Doctor About a Headache After Dental Work
You likely don't need to worry about a brief or mild headache after seeing the dentist.
But if your headache lasts a week after dental work (or even just 48 hours), is accompanied by pain, dizziness or vision changes or is interfering with daily activities, Dr. Al-Habib suggests you call your doctor. You may have another issue that needs to be treated.
- Acta Biomedica: "The Effect of Music Therapy in Reducing Dental Anxiety and Lowering Physiological Stressors"
- Mayo Clinic: "Bruxism"
- American Dental Association: "Anxiety: 3 Ways to Stop Fearing the Dentist"
- Journal of Dental Anesthesia and Pain Medicine: "Adverse effects following dental local anesthesia: a literature review"
- Texas Neurology and Stroke Center: "Alla Al-Habib, MD"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Dentophobia"
- National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke: "Headache"
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.