It’s a secret “hack” that’s making the rounds online, but unlike many of these tips or tricks you see, this one actually works. Holding a pencil between your teeth can reduce or even eliminate pain from a tension headache. But not everyone will see relief, and for some people it might cause more harm than good.
Why the Pencil Trick Works
The pencil trick works because many headaches, especially tension headaches, are related to TMJ (temporomandibular joint disorder). Tension in the jaw is often felt in the temporalis muscle, which fans out across much of the head, running from the lower jaw, under the cheekbone, and attaching on the side of the head behind the eye.
When your jaw is not in a comfortable, relaxed position, tension can build up in the temporalis muscle, and that tension can be passed on to other muscles in the head. This leads to widespread tension headaches. TMJ can even contribute to migraines because the trigger point for migraines, the trigeminal nerve, is interwoven with the muscles of the jaw, carrying commands to them, and pain signals back to the brain. TMJ-related tension can either pinch the trigeminal nerve or overwhelm it, triggering a migraine.
Holding a pencil in your teeth–but not biting down on it–can put your jaw in a more relaxed position. This can help reduce the tension in your head, and, along with it, the pain of tension headaches.
Why It Can Make Things Worse
Unfortunately, successful headache relief isn’t always as simple as just putting a pencil between your teeth. The pencil helps reposition your jaw, and for many people we can say that it puts the jaw in a more comfortable position.
However, it’s hardly a precise treatment, and for some people the pencil might actually put the jaw in a more uncomfortable position. Regular use of the pencil trick might lead to more tension in the long run, tension in different muscles, or may contribute to tension and damage to the jaw joint. This all becomes worse if people improperly bite down on the pencil, which will also contribute to tooth damage.
You can try the pencil trick, but if it works, you don’t want to rely on it long-term. Instead, schedule an appointment with a TMJ dentist, who can determine the proper position for your jaw and develop a custom bite splint that will relieve tension in your jaw, headaches, and other TMJ symptoms while promoting jaw joint health.