"You don't look sick."
You're right. I don't. But I am sick. I have this chronic invisible illness called Temporomandibular Joint Disorder (TMJ or TMJD). TMJ occurs when the chewing muscles and joints of the jaw are unable to function properly. There are many things that can causeTMJ: grinding, clenching, bad orthodontic treatments, a bad bite, disk erosion or out of alignment, damaged cartilage, damage caused by impact to the jaw, fatigue in the muscles (for instance, constantly chewing gum). Not everyone who has these conditions will develop TMJ but people with TMJ will have had one or more of these. What caused my TMJ? I don't know if there's any one culprit. I grind. I clench. I used to chew gum a lot. I had braces as a teen and Dr V thinks that's when my TMJ started. I have been hit in the jaw but never thought much of it. Over the summer, my jaw popped. It was audible. It hurt bad enough that I went to the local doc-in-a-box. The dr there gave me pain meds. That gave me temporary relief but I knew something else was wrong. This was when I first went to Dr V and was immediately put into treatment for my TMJ. It was by sheer luck (or maybe divine intervention) that my friend Karen recommended Dr V to me after I had bad experiences at another dental office. Dr V happens to have a specialty in treating patients with TMJ. How extremely fortunate for me!
What are the common signs and symptoms of TMJ?
-pain and/or tenderness
-pain in and around the ear
-difficulty chewing, often with pain
-locking of the jaw
-uncomfortable and/or uneven bite
I think a lot of people don't understand what it feels like to have TMJ. Think about hurting your knee or maybe your ankle. It's difficult to use it. It hurts constantly but especially when you try to walk. It takes time to heal. This is very similar to how TMJ feels. The major difference? TMJ will never heal. It's called chronic because although there are treatments to alleviate pain, there is no cure.
Though you may not see it, it hurts when I eat. It hurts when I talk and by the end of the school day all I want to do is be quiet (and it hurts when I sing to my favorite songs in the car). It hurts to laugh. It really hurts when I yawn. My ears pop all the time when I'm chewing - sometimes it hurts and sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes I can eat certain foods that other times I cannot eat and I never know if it will be a good food day or a bad food day. I have headaches all the time and the pain often radiates into my neck, shoulders and arms (often aggravating my pre-existing condition of carpal tunnel syndrome). It hurts to sleep because I can't sleep on my back and any other position puts pressure on my face (even with my good buckwheat pillow). I have balance issues and I've fallen several times because of it. I have to wear this pink splint in my mouth that makes me have a lisp. People look at me funny (I think they don't know what to say) and just stare at my mouth. This whole thing is stressful and causes quite a bit of depression, even though I try very hard to battle it. I had mental health issues before the TMJ came about, so I'm trying to be very careful with my moods.
So what is The Spoon Theory and how does it apply to me? The Spoon Theory says that people with a chronic illness (no matter what it is) have a limited amount of "spoons" to use during the day. Spoons are needed to complete all tasks during a day. Some activities need 1 spoon, others may need 2 or 3 spoons. I also use a spoon when I forget and do something that causes me pain (such as resting my head in my hand - a habit I am finding extremely difficult to break). People with no chronic illness have an unlimited amount of spoons and they can theoretically do whatever they want. I'm still trying to figure out my exact number of spoons because each day seems so different right now (I think I'm operating on 15 a day). Sometimes I use spoons on things that are not necessarily related to my jaw because I'm somewhat of a magnet for invisible illnesses - TMJ, Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, Osteoarthritis in my knees, migraines, insomnia, and mental health issues. Sometimes I use spoons unexpectedly, such as the other day when I hit a bump on the road and it jarred me enough that my teeth hit. Yeah, that hurt. Cost: 1 spoon. The more spoons I use, the more run-down and tired I become. The more spoons I use, the more pain I'm experiencing. Sometimes something good happens and I'll be able to earn back a spoon for that day, but I can't count on that. I have to plan my day to try to use the fewest amount of spoons. I have to carefully plan meals as I can no longer eat whatever I want. I can't just throw whatever into my lunch tote and go. I have to consider the pain I'm in when fixing lunch and pack accordingly. The past few days I have been grinding my teeth so violently (even with my splint in) that it wakes me up. Each time this happens, it costs 1 spoon.
I have friends from the TMJ group I belong to who have far fewer spoons than I do each day. I feel fortunate to have as many spoons as I do. This whole thing has made me feel fortunate that I have as much as I do. There are things I used to take for granted that I can't anymore and the number one thing on that list is food. I'm trying to see the silver lining; maybe I can lose some weight.
People with a chronic invisible illness can not do all of the same things as healthy people. Take this into consideration before you judge someone. Even I need to learn this... I found out a my friend Erin's spine doesn't curve the way it's supposed to at the neck. This causes her a lot of neck pain. I've known her since August 2006 and I never knew this about her. Just goes to show that people have more on their plates than we often know about.
I want to say that I did not write this for people to throw me a pity party. I don't want anyone to feel sorry for me. I am not complaining. It's the hand I was dealt. I write about this because it helps me cope. I write about this because I think it helps others with the same condition know they are not alone.
Thought of the Day: "I did as much research as I could and I took ownership of the illness, because if you don't take care of your body, where are you going to live?" - Karen Duffy
I definitely need to start taking better care of my body. Better care can lead to a happier, healthier me which can possibly lead to less pain. It certainly can't hurt to try!
For more information about The Spoon Theory, read an article written by the woman who developed the theory :