Thursday, February 19, 2009

My TMJ saga...

Yes Heather, I have TMJ too.

For the rest of you TMJ is Temporomandibular joint disorder
and Wiki does a really good job of explaining it.

Things began for me in about 1984. I noticed that my jaw was clicking and one morning when I was 17 I woke it up with it "frozen" shut. Now it wasn't really frozen permanently, it was just that my jaw was so stiff that morning that it took a good half hour before I could use it normally again. My mom set up an appointment with a orthodontist right away.

There had been some news stories about folks with TMJ on TV...telling about how they had been treated with joint replacement only to have those joints fail and the replacements mess up their jaws & face...a lot! So I was very nervous about what kind of treatment my orthodontist was going to prescribe.

As it turns out an orthodontist while not the correct doctor to treat this, was probably the best option at the time. My ortho decided that my jaw as upset because it was out of alignment and decided to have me wear an alignment plate to push my jaw back together.

Let's go back here... in approximately 1975 I had braces and treatments for my overbite. My overbite was so severe, there was a good centimeter between my upper and lower jaw when closed. So this orthodontist first attempted to push my upper jaw back, but when that didn't seem to be working he decided that we should try pulling my lower jaw forward. To get to this goal he fitted me with a mouth piece that I would wear at night that pulled my lower jaw past my upper jaw.

I'm no doctor, but I would bet good money that this treatment is where my problems with TMJ began!

Okay back to 1984. After this ortho pushes my lower jaw back and my jaw clicking hasn't frozen up my mouth anymore he suggests that we put on full upper and lower braces to pull my lower jaw forward again!!! Even as a 17y/o I could see the flaw in this plan and I declined (good thing as my parents couldn't even begin to afford it!)

I learned to live with my clicking jaw and learned that guys don't appreciate it when you giggle about your popping jaw when they are trying to kiss you. Hey I was 17! Give me a break!

Now flash to 1994, my jaw pain is so severe that I think I have an ear infection. I go to the military quack! who for once decides that this is over his head and gives me a refferal to an oral surgeon. (I call this guy a quack because of some of the other treatments he subjected me to, this time he got it right.) Unfortunately, it took about 6 months for me to actually be seen by the oral surgeon and I had to pull some strings to do it. Luckily one of my neighbors was the patient advocate at the base hospital.

We were living 4 hours away from the oral surgeon's office. And for part of the drive the road was under construction and that made for a very stressful drive...I would complain to my doctor about it every time I saw him.

My doctor explained a lot about TMJ to me. He taught me that what I had done to myself was to stress out so much that my brain was no longer getting the signals from my jaw that I was clenching it. So there was this vicious cycle... brain under stress - brain tells jaw to clench - jaw clenches - jaw sends signal to brain that it is clenching - brain doesn't get signal that jaw is clenching - brain tells jaw to clench - jaw clenches more - brain still doesn't get the message that the jaw is clenching and sends the signal again! all of this clenching is called Bruxism and it can happen with any of your muscles...just in the jaw it causes TMJ. Doc plan of attack was to train my brain to realize when my jaw was clenching so that I could try to stop it before damage was done.

My doctor gave me some biofeedback exercises to do while I was awake. I had to do them at least 4 times per day. I put my fingers on the muscles of my jaw and clench them on purpose. This would give my brain a dual signal that my jaw was clenching...eventually the brain is supposed to relearn to get the original signal from just the jaw. But at night there wasn't any way I could feel myself clenching and stop it, so we resorted to drugs to knock me out to keep me from clenching at night.

I was treated for a little over a year this way and it seemed to help a lot. I had to keep a pain and sleep diary to record how long it took me to go to sleep and if I remembered dreaming (if you don't remember that you dreamed, it means you didn't go into deep enough sleep to dream) which means you were probably clenching too much.

I stopped seeing my doctor in 1996 because he moved to another base and we did too...but he had released me from care and told me to just continue my exercises and be aware of when I was clenching. It was decided that my jaw movement was good enough (I could open my mouth big enough to live & eat) that I did not need joint replacement surgery.

I'm not cured. I will always have this. But for the most part I live with it without it disrupting my life. Occasionally I have a rough day and it gives me a killer headache. But I haven't had my jaw freeze up on me and my jaw has good mobility without clicking too much. so we're calling it good.


  1. Wow, that's quite a story Renee! It doesn't sound fun at all :( I'm sorry to hear you suffer with this.

  2. Sounds like you've done well with your TMJ :)

  3. the first time i heard of TMJ was on sex & the city. :) sorry you're having to deal with it!

  4. That was kinda like Back to the Future III. Start in 1984, go back to 1975, then back to 1984, then into the future to 1994.

    I woke up one morning last week with my jaw hurting. Anytime I tried biting down on anything, it would hurt like high holly right there in the joint. It got better but I wondered if I might be starting to get TMJ.

  5. Killer headaches suck. I'm sorry, Renee :-(

  6. Sorry to hear this, but like Goofy Girl points out, it seems you've done well with it.
    Thanks for all the information, I have heard of this but didn't know the medical terms...