Sunday, June 2, 2013

How TMJ Started Controlling My Life...And How I Plan To Take My Life Back

The temporomandibular joint is one of the most complex joints in the human body. Ironically enough, it is also one of the easiest joints to injure. Here is my story of TMJ: how it came to be a prominent part of my life and the treatments that will hopefully soon help me to regain my life. (Believe it or not, this is the abbreviated version. If you'd like more details or have specific questions for me, feel free to email me:

September 2010: 

My senior year of college had just begun. On top of working as an editor for the school newspaper, finishing a TESOL minor, psychology major and Spanish major, and trying to decide where to go next, I was also working my way toward another personal goal: earning my 1st degree black belt in TaeKwonDo before I graduated from college. I was doing pretty well, having already attained the rank of brown belt. (*Note: I did get my 1st degree black belt before graduating with my bachelor's degree. I am currently a 3rd degree black belt, though I've had to take some time off from training because of...well, if you read the rest, you'll figure out why.)

One night during class at my TKD academy, I was sparring with a higher-ranked student. I'll be the first to admit that I'm not very good at sparring. One of the first people to teach me how to spar always had to continuously tell me to block my head. Well, this weakness was to be my downfall. Mid-match, my opponent threw a round kick (one of these, though this person would likely break his toes or severely mess up the tendons in the top of his foot in a real fight...pull your toes back and hit with the ball of your foot if you try this at home... Actually, don't try this at home. Go take a martial arts course. Anyways, I digress...) aimed at the side of my head. I made a feeble attempt to block, and stepped back to dodge. 

Anyone who knows me well knows that my spatial reasoning is pretty terrible. I didn't step back quite far enough, and my opponent's foot clipped the very edge of my chin, forcing the right side of my jaw slightly out of place (which consequently led to the left side being slightly out of place, too). Being the stubborn person that I am, I massaged it back into place, moved it a little to make sure it still worked, and kept fighting.

The next day, however, I woke up to find that my jaws had swollen so much that I could barely open my mouth. The dentist took one look and said, "Well, this is way above my pay grade," and sent me to a maxillofacial surgeon. The end result? A diagnosis of temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJD). I was on steroids for a month and was told not to chew anything for three weeks. But hey, the swelling did go down, no bones were broken, and I was fine. Or so I thought.

Over the next few years, I noticed that I had the uncanny ability to predict storms just because my jaws would start aching as the atmospheric pressure changed. I figured it was just something that I learned to deal with. The doctor always told me that it would be fine: "Just don't chew for a day or so."

I knew that answer wouldn't work forever. After all, I was in school to eventually be a public school teacher. Talking is kind of an important aspect of my job, and I knew that if I couldn't chew without pain, I'd probably have a hard time talking if the trend continued.

November 2012:

The stress of writing a master's thesis, along with many other stressors, finally caught up with me. I had found some temporary relief in October by having my wisdom teeth removed, but the pain in my jaws was constantly causing tension headaches.

By December, I was taking ibuprofen every day and sometimes eating only one meal a day to avoid chewing as much as possible. I had migraines every few days. Something had to be done, so I decided to find yet another specialist to look at my jaws. Third time's a charm, right? But finding the right specialist was easier said than done.

March 2013:

After going through multiple leads to try to find a doctor who was at least within my insurance network, I finally made a consultation appointment with Dr. Michael Wooten in Knoxville, TN. For the first time since being kicked in the face, someone sat down with me and simply explained what it meant to have a TMJ disorder. The word that I knew I would hear but was still afraid of finally came up: surgery. Dr. Wooten specialized in TMJ surgery, and he said it was very possible that I was a candidate for a procedure called a TMJ scope. We had to verify that, though, with a type of x-ray called an arthrogram. On March 18, I showed up at UT Medical Center for that procedure.

The doctor and his assistant numbed my face, then proceeded to fill my jaw joint as full of fluid as it could possibly hold, then they had me open and close my mouth and recorded what happened as my jaw moved. After a minute or so of a break, the entire procedure was repeated on the other side. It was not a pleasant experience in the least, but they made it easier by at least providing pleasant company. I learned that not very many people who come through for this procedure have trauma-related TMJ and that most wait a lot longer (which makes everything a lot more painful). I can't imagine having waited much longer than I did; it was painful enough after less than three years. I also learned that the left side was much worse than the right side; the doctor didn't even have to look at a picture to predict that. He could just tell by how it felt.

After a few days of waiting (rather impatiently, I might add. I think I drove everyone around me a little crazy with my obsession with my telephone), I got the call to come back to Dr. Wooten's office to review the results. And here is what they found:

The photo represents how a jaw is supposed to work. Mine worked fairly well with a single exception.

The small disk of cartilage in both of my jaws could not stay on top of the condyle like it is supposed to. In a relaxed position, the cartilage in my jaws was being forced forward by scar tissue, causing all sorts of muscle strain, not to mention strain on the connective tissues that were trying to hold the disk in place. Were it not for the scar tissue pushing the disk forward, my jaws would likely work exactly like they were designed to.

Because of this result, Dr. Wooten determined that I was a candidate for a TMJ scope to remove the scar tissue and cauterize the area to hopefully help prevent more tissue from forming. Which leads me to today.

June 2, 2013:
It's a typical Sunday, singing in the choir, talking with friends after church, cleaning a little to get ready for the next week. But it's not a typical Sunday because in the back of my head, there is a hopeful thought: This could be the last Sunday that I have constant jaw pain when I sing, talk and chew. The past six months have been some of the worst in my medical history, and it very well may end on Tuesday, June 4.

Tomorrow, I'll go to Knoxville to undergo a few pre-surgery tests and to register at the hospital. Then, early Tuesday morning, I'll go to sleep and wake up with a few holes in my head and hopefully clean jaw joints. Recovery will take about a week before I can start working my way back to normal levels.

Sure, I'll probably never be able to chew gum again. I might never be able to bite into a whole apple or enjoy a bag of taffy. But I might be able to sing without pain. I might not have to miss work because my jaws locked in the middle of the night. And it may sound silly, but I'm also looking forward to yawning and even sneezing again without so much pain.

Dr. Wooten has told me many times that there is no real cure for TMJ disorders. But the goal isn't a cure; it is an improvement. And as scared as I am of surgery, I'm looking forward to making improvements in my jaws and doing what I can to keep them healthy for years to come.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

This is the way the world ends...

Ah, December 21, 2012. A day that will live in infamy as the day that most of the modern world said that the Mayans said the world would end. The power of hearsay is so amazing...but I digress.

Amidst all the talk of the world ending, a single line kept coming into my mind: "This is the way the world ends; not with a bang, but a whimper."

These are the concluding lines from TS Eliot's "The Hollow Men," a poem that has been constantly popping into my head for the past few months. It is a combination of allusion and symbolism that creates such a fearfully wonderful view of how it all very well might end.

As I am a complete and total geek, the following is my analysis and interpretation of the imagery and symbolism presented in Eliot's "The Hollow Men". I would like to emphasize that this is my own interpretation, and I therefore reserve the right to be wrong about it. I also encourage any and all readers who wish to disagree or add to my analysis to do so civilly in the comment section (I do love a good literary discussion!)

Monday, November 5, 2012

Casting My First Ballot

I recently got talked into being interviewed for a local newspaper's piece on first-time voters. It didn't take long to realize that I was the only one in the piece who was 23 years old. That's right; do the math. I was 19 during the last presidential election. So why is this my first time voting?

Brace yourselves. I'm about to utter the words that most political or faux-political people hate to hear: I CHOSE to not vote.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

My Blind Date with Heaven

Note: In June of this year, I became a catechumen (a person officially preparing to be received into the church) of the Orthodox Church in America. The following is a journal entry from April 2012 about the first time I stepped into an American Orthodox church. If you have questions about the Orthodox church, why I chose to convert, or anything along those lines, I'd be happy to try to answer them (or find someone who can answer them, as I'm still learning myself.) I'd also suggest looking at the Orthodox Church in America website.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Unique is the new Normal

I have the magnificent pleasure of volunteering with a rambunctious group of high schoolers twice a week. We get together and talk about theater. We play improv games. We plan how to make the school administrators clean up the stage. We even put on small plays for the entertainment of the faculty, staff, students, parents and friends who choose to come. (Well, we have only done one to date, but I speak in good faith that we can do another one. We've only been at this for one full school semester, after all.)

But we also get to have some pretty deep conversations, too. For example, today when I asked the question why they wanted to do theater and be a part of drama club, one of the answers that came up was that they felt like they could be themselves when they were in our club meetings. They could be wild and crazy and not have to worry about what people thought when they acted silly. One of the students observed that "normal" according to our society was the person who walked through life knowing no one's name, doing nothing of note and living in a generally neutral manner. It made me start wondering (and allow me to place some emphasis on this):

Since when did we start conditioning ourselves to believe that "normal" is this robotic lifestyle?

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Bless those who persecute you...

When I sit down to write on this blog, it is usually because something has been constantly filling my brain for hours (sometimes days) at a time. I actually sat down to write this blog yesterday and had to walk away because I just wasn't ready. Here's hoping I can do it justice this time around.

My mind has been overwhelmed lately with the various reactions I have seen to the alleged attacks against American Christians (mostly political in nature).  I say alleged simply because I do not know enough about the situations to make legitimate assessments. I noticed the reactions of one particular gentleman who I follow on various social media sites because he and I are alumni of the same university.

In studying the reactions of him and his followers to the political actions of recent days, I noticed a trend. Indignation, entitlement, and sometimes even pure malice filled many of the posts. It made my heart ache to read so much anger from people who openly said they held their opinions because they were Christians. It just didn't seem right.

I started mulling over it in my head. No matter how I tried to analyze it, my mind kept returning to the same thing: a Bible verse about blessing those that persecute you.

Monday, September 3, 2012

The saddest thing in the world

I have a good friend who loves to ask me hypothetical and philosophical questions (mostly to divert the conversation from talking about himself, but perhaps he also genuinely wants to hear what I have to say; I guess only time will tell). The other night, he asked me what in this world made me saddest. After bantering about why in the world he would want to know the key to making me as sad as possible, I finally settled back and thought of my serious answer.