caution: yawning can be dangerous to your health

When I woke up this morning, I immediately thought about this same Monday morning one year ago today. Not that I often remember what my Monday mornings are like one year later – but this particular one was memorable. It went something like this:

I got up around 6 a.m. and found my way downstairs for that all-important first cup of coffee. Caffeine in hand, I could already hear Elena (nine months old at the time) stirring in her room – at which point I probably spent the next few minutes pretending I didn’t hear a thing except the hum of Matt’s voice on the television informing me of the latest political scandal, crisis, war report or weather-related tragedy. (Or wait, maybe that was last week? Or last month? So hard to tell the difference.) And hey, I never said I was trying for Mother of the Year.

Shortly thereafter, Jeff came into the kitchen and we scooted around each other in silence – mostly due the fact that we had gotten in a little “tiff” before bed the night before regarding one of the many dumb things that married folk get into little tiffs about and then spend the next 24 hrs. not speaking until they forget why they stopped speaking in the first place. Either that or they really need to discuss something related to childcare, finances or otherwise essential items. Luckily, we were well within our 24 hr. period and had just gotten up, so none of that applied yet.

Soon, I headed upstairs to rescue the littlest Burpo from her white jail cell. As always, the first stop was the changing table. Down she went. I reached over for a clean diaper and that’s when it happened:

The yawn that changed everything.

Well, perhaps saying it changed everything is a bit extreme, but it definitely made its mark. To put the story in reverse for a second, for years I had issues with my left jaw in that it would make an awful crackling sound every now and then when I would yawn. It was quite startling and disturbing when it happened, though whenever I mentioned it to a medical professional the first question always was, “Does it hurt?” “No,” I’d say. “Then don’t worry about it,” they’d reply. Okie doke. Sometimes it would be so loud that I’d get a, “I heard that one!” out of Jeff.

That morning, approximately one year ago today, I let out a big yawn – only the kind you can really let out on a Monday morning at 6:30 a.m. – with Elena in front of me waiting to be changed. That’s when…it crackled. It popped. It snapped. In fact, I was like a regular ole’ bowl of Rice Krispies. And then, it got stuck. Immediately, I knew something had gone very wrong. Not to get graphic, but to get graphic, it felt like a bone in my jaw was definitely pointing in a direction it shouldn’t be pointed in. It also happened to hurt quite badly. Startled and unsure what to do, I headed downstairs with Elena, working on opening and closing my mouth constantly to try to gauge the movement. Definitely not normal and definitely painful. That was my uneducated medical opinion, anyway. Speaking of medical opinions, I knew that I probably needed to make some sort of phone call stat! (hey, do they still use that term in hospitals?) but I didn’t even know who to call. Jaw, jaw, jaw….let’s see…a dentist? An orthopedic doctor? Ironically, this very question would later turn out to be more of an issue than I would have ever guessed.

Seeing that I was clearly disturbed, my kind husband asked what was wrong. My kind response? “Nothing!” Then I remember thinking that maybe I was prematurely panicking and to get something to eat and give it some time to work itself out – or back into place, as the case seemed to be. But eating was a bad idea. Nearly impossible is actually what it was. Worse yet, attempting to chew on the right (supposedly uninjured side) was even worse than the left side. Awesome. I mean, if I had known this was going to happen I could have saved myself from all those Weight Watchers meetings. And, things like putting on lipstick? Forget it. Brushing my teeth? Barely. Blowing my nose? Impossible, without extreme pain. And, of course, yawning? That’s just laughable! Which also hurt, by the way, along with smiling.

This is the part where I’m going to attempt to make what could easily turn into a marathon post into a neatly packaged summary. (Yeah, right.) Two weeks, a few phone calls, tons of pain and many soft meals later, I went to my first of what would be twice-weekly physical therapy appointments while I waited to get in to see a dentist that specialized in TMJ issues. My therapists were pretty much blown away by the tightness and tension I carry in my upper back, shoulder and neck muscles. Apparently they were not surprised by my little incident – in fact my great PT Amy informed me that the right jaw wasn’t far behind. My favorite part of those appointments was the deep tissue work I received on my upper back and shoulder knots, followed by heat. My least favorite part was the massage she did inside my jaw to try to get the muscles to relax so that the disc would eventually want to slip back into place (which is what had happened that morning: my jaw disc had finally displaced and stuck in the forward position). In fact, the word torture comes to mind. The appointment would always end with Amy making me open my mouth as wide as I could and she would see how many fingers she could fit in between my teeth. When I started the therapy, two fingers was the maximum and by the end of October I had progressed to almost three fingers. (I can do about 2.5 fingers tonight, by the way – which means it’s not a stellar day.)

Meanwhile, some $300 later I came out of a consultation with a TMJ dentist who indicated that my best course of treatment was a mouth orthotic that I would wear 24/7 for the next several weeks, coming in once a week for two or three hours per visit to have it adjusted. If that didn’t eventually get me back to normal – at that point we would need to explore reconstructive surgery. Um, excuse me?? It sounded like you said something about reconstructing my mouth, but I haven’t cleaned out my ears for a while, so I must have heard something wrong. The part I definitely didn’t hear wrong was the part about money…at least $5,000 to start with the orthotic…which is where I tie back into the part of the post where I said I didn’t even know who to call that morning.

Apparently, even though like a cajillion (yes, I did just make that word up) people suffer from TMJ issues, and seriously painful ones at that, most are not covered AT ALL by insurance companies. The reason, as I understand it, is essentially two-fold: 1) There is much debate over whether it is a medical issue or a dental issue, and 2) Very little research has been done that offers conclusive evidence for the type of treatment options that are the most effective, therefore many people end up going in different directions trying random therapies prescribed by doctors or dentists – some of which eventually cause more harm than good. Therefore, those kind people who serve the American people by providing us with health insurance don’t want to touch TMJ with a 10-foot pole. So if you are one of the unlucky ones who can’t eat or open your mouth…I hope you have a lot of cash lying around otherwise it sucks to be you.

Needless to say, this information was enough to make me run screaming out the “TMJ specialist” office saying thanks, but no thanks! I’ll just live with the pain…and that’s exactly what I’ve done for one year now. Don’t get me wrong, it’s actually gotten a lot better than it used to be in the beginning when I literally had trouble putting food in my mouth and chewing. In fact, on good days it feels almost normal at times.

On bad days – like last week when I was experiencing a lot of stress and anxiety – it can get pretty painful again. Most days it’s somewhere in between and the degree of tightness and how sore it is can vary even from hour to hour during the day. I eventually quit the PT because it was impossible to keep up with and I had maxed out the benefit, but I try to get deep tissue massages when I can, and do self internal and external jaw exercises and stretches sometimes throughout the day. Also, like anything else, once your body starts adapting to a new normal, the level of pain doesn’t seem as noticeable as it did at first.

Still, there are definitely days where it bums me out that, at this point, I may never experience “normal” and pain-free jaw movement on my left side again. (Because I don’t know if anyone has noticed, but you kind of move your jaw a lot throughout the day.) However, unless I’m willing to try some sort of largely unproven treatment, I’m not sure what to do about it. And, in the grand scheme of things, I could certainly have worse problems. Let’s just hope the right side doesn’t eventually decide to join its friend on the left.

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One thought on “caution: yawning can be dangerous to your health

  1. Pingback: are you numb yet? | burpo banter

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