Finding A Cure For TMJ
I pushed my half-eaten plate of dinner aside. I was afraid my jaw was going to lock each time I opened my mouth for a bite.
TMJ (temporomandibular joint) acts like a sliding hinge, connecting your jawbone to your skull. I’ve been grinding my teeth, clicking my jaw, and living in pain for a long time.
At 21 years old a dentist told me I had two options: surgery, or live with it and be careful.
I chose the latter. I figured this was something I just had to live with.
Ten years later my TMJ caused me to chip my front teeth. I asked my new dentist about options and she suggested a night guard. (It created a sexy lisp when I spoke. Great for pillow talk with my husband.)
The guard was protecting my teeth but it didn’t address the underlying problem. And now, two years later, I sat at the dinner table, unable to chew due to fear of dislocating my jaw.
This was my breaking point. I had to find a better solution.
My primary care doctor referred me to a TMJ specialist. Unfortunately, this specialist didn’t accept my insurance, charged $895 for the initial consultation, and was three hours away.
Once again I felt hopeless.
My husband asked our neighbor Brian, a doctor. Brian knew a guy who might be able to help. His name was John and he was a physical therapist.
I was cautiously optimistic. At my first appointment when I told John my dentist’s suggestion to baby it (soft foods only, alternate ice and heat, don’t yawn) he said, “That’s not going to fix the problem.” He also said he hated night guards because they don’t keep you from biting down. “In fact, they make you bite down more.”
John had me lay down on the table. I stared up at the ceiling, nervous about what he was going to do. He sat in a chair and placed his hands on my jawline. Nice and easy at first, lightly feeling around my face, then using his fingers to massage and really dig in. I never realized there was a muscle around my jaw. It hurt. A lot. And he was pressing on it so hard I was scared it would move into a wrong position. I was scared of getting lock-jaw right there on the table. I grunted and kicked my legs. I was sweating. As he was massaging (read: annihilating) my face, he told me he knew it hurt. He apologized and said, “I know, this is torture.” But he was so confident in what he was doing I felt like he must be making it better.
John showed me exercises I could do at home. He wanted me to come back each week so he could continue massage. As if an afterthought John assured me, “We’ll fix it. We’ll get rid of it.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I didn’t think TMJ was something I could ever get rid of without surgery.
After two visits with a physical therapist the TMJ is not gone but it’s significantly better. Instead of being fearful of lock-jaw I’m equipped with exercises and massage techniques that empower me to literally heal myself.
I had been living in pain and fear for such a long time that I normalized it. But living in pain is not normal.
Thankfully, TMJ is not a life or death prognosis. But what if it was something more serious?
CEO Brooks Bell was 38 when she noticed blood in her stool. The first doctor told her it was “almost certainly” hemorrhoids. The second doctor agreed it was hemorrhoids. But Bell concluded that what she had did not look like a hemorrhoid.
She explained what happened next:
“At this point I ... cold-called a gastroenterologist. ...The front desk tried to turn me away, saying that since I hadn’t been referred I had to pay a $200 fee to see the doctor. So I accepted the fee and met with the physician’s assistant … and she had a totally different perspective.”
The physician’s assistant scheduled a colonoscopy for four days later and Bell was diagnosed with colon cancer. Because it was caught early, Bell was able to get treatment and is now cancer-free.
Bell took an active approach to her health and advocated for herself.
If you’re living in pain and can’t solve a health issue, don’t give up. Use your intuition, immerse yourself in the research process, ask more questions, and get second and third opinions.
It took 15 years and a breaking point for me to finally seek out an alternative solution for my TMJ. Once I became an active participant in my health, doors opened.
Don’t wait 15 years. Nobody is ever going to care more about your health than you.
Much thanks to Lauren Maslen, Alexandra Macqueen, Adam Tank, KC Arvind, and Steven Ovadia for providing feedback on this essay.