Definition: Chronic pain is often defined as any pain lasting more than 12 weeks. Whereas acute pain is a normal sensation that alerts us to possible injury, chronic pain is very different. Chronic pain persists—often for months or even longer.
I’ve wanted to write about my condition (and ways I’ve found to ease the pain my condition causes) for a while now, because it’s something that I’ve really struggled with. I’m not the kind of person who lets my pain stop me, or who lets it get in the way of things – but recently, as it has gotten worse – I can see how easily I could be. If I didn’t have the right support from medical professionals and my partner, it would be very easy to let it get the better of me. I want to offer any advice I can to people suffering from the same thing, because knowledge is power – and the more we know, the better equipped we can be to deal with things.
For me, the chronic pain stems from severe Temporomandibular Joint Syndrome. I’ve had the condition for around 8 years, and whilst it used to be annoying, it was manageable and in most cases un-noticeable. However, in the last couple of years it has transitioned into ‘severe’ and started causing me a lot of pain and incredible discomfort on a daily basis.
TMJ is a misalignment of the jaw, where (in varying levels of discomfort and severity) you experience difficulty closing and connecting your jaw, and when you do, you feel an uncomfortable ‘clicking’ sensation, on bad days – my jaw will lock open or closed, and I’ll need to force it in either direction to realign it.
At my current level of pain (which I’d rank as an 8 or 9 right now), the ‘clicking’ is basically a ‘dislocating’ sensation – and it’s extremely painful, sore and loud. It’s something I feel incredibly self-conscious of whilst eating, and it means I often steer clear of eating certain foods, if I know the food will trigger violent dislocation of the joint.
The strain on my jaw joint and jaw muscles means that all my other facial muscles are constantly trying to compensate. This means, alongside the dislocation pain, I’m also extremely prone to migraines and severe facial-muscle pain. It’s a hard thing to explain, but on a good day this feels like a steady but pounding headache, and on a bad day it feels like someone just punched me in the face. My entire lower face (my temples, cheekbones and jaw) will ache like I just slammed face first into a brick wall.
These are the varying kinds of headaches associated with TMJ, and I probably frequent about 4-5 of those daily, I think.
It’s rare for me to experience a symptom-free day, it’s just a question of how bad the symptoms will be. It’s something I’ve learnt to live with – but on those bad days, it’s something I desperately want to be rid of.
I’ve been seeing a specialist at King’s College Hospital for a year now, who has been amazing. Whilst we haven’t yet stumbled upon a solution yet (fun fact – no one really know how to cure TMJ, so it’s all guess work) we have found various ways to ease the pain it causes. I’ve listed these below.
First though, I want to say, if this is something you’re struggling with, you should go and speak to someone. A lot of the time it gets mis-diagnosed as tooth-ache or headaches – when actually, these are just symptoms of the larger problem, being TMJ. I was referred to the hospital from my dentist – which is where I originally flagged up the pain and discomfort I was feeling.
When I got to the hospital they took x-rays and scans to ensure it was an issue with the joint – which obviously, was then confirmed as being the case.
- Gum Shield – The misalignment in my jaw causes me to grind my teeth during the night, and it is this grinding which can causes a lot of the migraines and facial pain. Unfortunately this is something you can’t consciously stop doing (because you’re sleeping when you do it) – but it is something you can try and prevent. I had a fitted gum-shield made for my bottom jaw, and (even though I bit through it in a matter of weeks) the shield did help ease the headaches slightly.
- Use your tongue to monitor daytime grinding – A lot of the time, if you’re grinding unconsciously, you’ll never ever notice yourself doing it. For me, that’s certainly the case, and I know I also clench my jaw without realising too – which adds to the tension in my face massively. To stop this, I put my tongue between my front teeth during the day. It means I can’t clench or grind, and I can keep my jaw relaxed, and make sure I’m not making things worse.
- Muscle-relaxant medication – This is a prescribed medication I’ve been taking for a few months, and it has helped slacken and loosen the jaw muscles so they don’t carry as much tension. This tension is what causes a lot of my pain, so anything that reduces that, is good. I’ve found this works well, but only on a high dosage. Luckily, the medication hasn’t had any other noticeable side-effects on me – but I was hold by my doctor that many people struggle to wake up, and completely lose their energy whilst taking these pills. If I was feeling the common side-effects, it would need to be a balance between finding the right dosage, and still being comfortable – but luckily my body seems to agree with them.
- Relaxation and meditation – any kind of tension is often routed back to stress, and I have noticed my jaw gets worse when I feel uptight or stressed. It actually flared up originally 2 years ago when I got made redundant, so I can totally see the connections between mental well-being and the tension my jaw carries physically. I do work hard, and I work often – so I’m trying to relax more and prompt myself to relax and switch off. Things like taking a bath may seen trivial, but having an hour of ‘no work, no phone’ is hugely beneficial.
- Neck-Props – One of the aspects of TMJ I find most uncomfortable is the ‘slack jaw’ sensation I feel when my jaw is out of it’s joint. It kind of feels like it’s hanging there and the pulling on the joint is pretty horrible. To combat that, I try and prop items under my neck if I can. When I’m watching the TV, I’ll put the Sky Remote Control under my chin, so my jaw has something to rest on. When I sleep I roll up a jump and prop it under my jaw, so it can rest throughout the night.
- Massage – A simple one, but I try and massage my facial muscles at least once a day. I know that if any other muscle in my body was causing me this much pain, I would be having it massaged – so it shouldn’t be any different for my face. I usually start with my temples, and move across my cheek bones and then down to the jaw joint. I know I need to be pretty firm, but afterwards I do feel a little less tense, and the pain will fade for an hour or so.
- Anti-inflammatory meds – Ibroprofen is something I can rely on for quick pain-relief, and is what I find to be the most effective for the joint pain. It’s something you can get quickly and cheaply over the counter without a prescription.
I really hope this list helped if you’re suffering from the same thing, and feel free to ask me any questions over Twitter @ellerosetweets.