Lock(Jaw) and Key
Written by Kristin Anderson on February 8, 2014
I’ve been getting headaches for as long as I can remember. When I was 15 years old, I had a migraine that was like nothing I had ever felt at that time in my life. I was crying and started banging my head on the wall, just so I could feel something else, even a different kind of pain. I have had years where it seemed like I had a headache every day—and my headaches run the gamut from full on migraines with auras and nausea to chronic tension and “rainbow” headaches. Sometimes I wake up with a headache, sometimes they come on in the evening, and they are always, always oppressive. While I technically might feel more pain in other parts of my body, I want to punch something when I get a headache because it makes me angry. Angry at how miserable it will make that day’s activities for me. Angry at how I can lose an entire day (or more) to a headache because I simply can’t open my eyes or move without jarring pain.
So imagine my surprise when a routine visit to a new dentist led to a new discovery about my headaches. The dentist knew instantly that I suffered from TMJ problems. He asked if I got headaches, with an assuming yet kind tone. He stuck his hand in my mouth and manipulated my jaw muscles until I was squinting my eyes hard from the agonizing pain. He nodded his head in acknowledgement of what was clearly temporomandibular joint disorder and immediately referred me to a TMJ specialist, “one of the top experts” in the field. My visit to this expert was the highlight of October—for one thing, the doctor gave me chocolate (and told me “at least you’re pretty!”), but most importantly, he gave me hope. Despite assessing my jaw for over an hour and determining that I had some seriously screwed up things going on, he smiled and gave me an action plan with potential for gold after all of my rainbow headache agony. He was fairly certain that with some physical therapy and a splint, I could kiss many of my headaches goodbye (although there won’t be a lot of kissing while I’m wearing the splint 24/7 for two months). After seeing a pain specialist that month who told me I would “just have to live with pain”, it was shocking to hear someone deliver good news.
My jaw still burns and locks up, but twice weekly physical therapy (with more unpleasant and painful manipulation of my jaw muscles) is starting to clear up my headaches. Shocking, but true—in just a few weeks, I’ve had fewer headaches with no pain medications to take the credit! And although my jaw MRI showed that my jaw is indeed unlike any other my doctor has ever seen (“I want to name a disease after you! And you have to donate your jaw to science…” said my jaw doc this week) I am feeling a strange optimism that if I work this plan, I will actually see some results.
At the very least, maybe my years of agony will lead to my name and jaw MRI being printed in medical textbooks in perpetuity.