Living with a TMJ Disorder

Something I have not discussed much more than a brief mention on this blog is that I was diagnosed with a TMJ disorder (sometimes referred to as TMD). You may have never heard of it. I had not before my diagnosis, and was very surprised that a tempromandibular joint disorder was behind the frequent headaches and sinus/ear infections.

For several weeks before my diagnosis, I had a headache nearly every day. For a couple of years, I was getting sick quite frequently. I would get terrible headaches, stuffy/runny nose, earaches, a pain in my face so profound that it felt as if someone had punched me clear in the nose, and nasty green slime pouring from me. My whole body would ache and I would just plain feel rotten. I was visiting the doctor more often than I get to visit with several of my close family members. Taking antibiotics one after the other grew tiring very quickly. So did paying out of pocket for medical care at a doctor’s office and hospital that plain sought out to rip its patients off, but that’s beyond my point…

I was sick for the majority of the first few months of 2015. As a matter of fact, I was waiting in the Express Care clinic on New Year’s Day with a plethora of coughing, complaining patients. I was getting sick every three or four weeks and I was plain suffering through it. I refused to go back to the doctor for more antibiotics because honestly, I knew that it isn’t good to take too many of them. And I knew all that was going to happen if I went was that the doctor would diagnose me with another sinus infection and send me on my merry way with a few prescriptions in hand: allergy pill, nasal spray, antibiotic, and one time even Prednisone. This routine became extremely tiring.

Ask anyone I worked with at the time: I was plain out miserable, cranky, and depressed a good part of the time because I was always sick. I was showing up at work unable to speak. I couldn’t bother answering the phone because the person on the other end wouldn’t be able to understand me anyways and my friend even had to order my breakfast in the campus grill one time because I couldn’t tell them what I wanted myself. As humorous as it was that I was finally silenced (I’m very shy, but once I get to know someone I never shut up!), it was obvious that it had become very frustrating. This mess was seriously getting in the way of my life. I had HAD it!

After speaking with a coworker who had experience with sinus issues, I finally decided to straight up ask my doctor for a referral to an Ear, Nose, and Throat specialist. Finally!

The ENT got straight down to it. After a chat about my symptoms and review of my medical history, he proceeded to poke and prod my face, my neck, and my ears. The little light was shown into my nose, my throat, and both ears. Finally, after a bit of distress from having my sinuses poked numerous times, he asked me to open my mouth as wide as I could. Somehow, he put his hands upside down and inserted his thumbs into the joints of my jaw from inside of my mouth. He applied light pressure to the joints and instructed me to open and close my mouth.

Oh, the pain! I couldn’t help but wince and nearly cry out. He indicated that it was exactly as he thought. After the gloves were tossed in the trash, he took a seat and broke two bits of news to me:
First, he said he was being gentle. ‘Wait…gentle?! You mean that when you do that with most patients, it’s much rougher than THAT?’ He nodded. He could tell as soon as I began to open my mouth the amount of pain it was causing and that it was enough to tell him that…Second, I had a bad case of TMJ, more commonly called TMD in this day and age.

Everything made sense after that appointment. The seven cavities I had been having filled, one or two at a time at one month interval visits to the dental clinic. The headaches. The frequent infection–which, it turns out, truly was an infection, but instead of being caused by sinusitis (like I had previously suspected) it was caused by the inflammation in my jaws spreading to my ears and sinuses.

I went home with more prescriptions (an antibiotic designed more for this particular type of inflammation, a muscle relaxer, and a medication for the pain), follow up appointments, and instructions. I ended up having to switch medications twice because we had thought they were causing me gastrointestinal issues.

But here’s the thing: the thing that had been causing the issue all along was anxiety. There’s THAT word again!!! He said I was too stressed. He suspected I was clenching my teeth at night, since it was blatantly obvious that I have an issue with chewing on my lips and the insides of my cheeks when I’m nervous. This is something I had done for quite a while, but had not previously noticed was becoming worse and worse until then. I would–and still do, unfortunately–chew on my lips until they bleed and my cheeks until blisters formed.

He recommended I sleep with a mouth guard but instead of paying a huge amount of money for a custom fitting one, I could head to the sporting goods section at Walmart and pick one up for just a few bucks. I tried that for a couple of weeks. I hated having the thing in my mouth while I was trying to sleep. But once I got used to it, I realize now that it really would have helped had it not continually fallen out my mouth while I was sleeping and ended up on the floor, under my pillow, in the bed with me or my husband laying right on top of it…gross.

Back to the Present

By the grace of God, I had been relatively symptom free for quite some time, as far as the TMJ goes. Because the stress and grief of losing my job was enough. Recently, however, I feel like I’ve started taking steps backward again. I have a headache nearly every day. I’ve left work early twice with horrible migraines that make me want to do nothing but find a quiet, dark room and lay down. At this point, I’m not even sure what kind of headaches I’m having.

This evening, my jaws started getting very sore. Opening and closing my mouth seems like a chore. My whole face is starting to ache.

‘God, please don’t tell me that this mess is coming back again. I’ve got so much to deal with already right now! Please PLEASE don’t add another weight on my shoulders. I feel like they’re so heavy already that I can hardly stand.’

Apparently, this is how it is. I can get this thing under control, but somehow, it’s going to come back. Just like the anxiety that’s been haunting my waking moments as well as my dreams, it will never really be gone. I’m going through this bout of pain right now, but I CAN get it under control again. I need some good ol’ fashioned therapy routine. Time to lay off of the chewy, crunchy foods. Goodbye chewing gum, chips, and chewy, sticky candies. So long, beef jerky. After while, pretzels. (Though I do need to lay off of the junk food, in general). Time to apply compresses to reduce pain and any swelling. Time to dig around my bathroom cabinet for one of my forgotten, rejected muscle relaxers that were apparently not the real cause behind my digestive issues (that would, of course, be stress and anxiety). Time to bring something else to my next appointment with my general practitioner.

Most importantly, it’s time for some more prayer.

Read more about TMJ disorders here.

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