What I Wish Others Knew About Jaw Pain
It was 3am on a Sunday morning, but I was wide awake thanks to the throbbing pain in my jaw. The hot water bottle I was using as a pillow had gone cold, but warmth radiated from my cheeks. My face felt so tired, and I struggled to keep my eyes open as I Googled "24-hour dentist" and "emergency dentist." My molars felt infected and ready to pop out of my mouth: I was ready to have them pulled. But in reality, I knew my teeth were fine - the pain was a symptom of my worst jaw flare to date.
When I tell people I have arthritis in my jaw, many of them assume I only have issues with chewing and talking. And it's true that I struggle with those things; as the pain worsens, I speak less and less. Dinner becomes less exciting while eating soft foods, and sometimes I can't handle those. Yet that's just two of many ways jaw pain affects my life.
"Jaw Pain" is an understatement
I wish that others knew that jaw flares affect more than that one joint. Inflammation from my jaw seems to travel into my neck and shoulders, making them painful and stiff. It makes my face feel downright exhausted; there are days it's hard to keep my eyes open. Even my teeth ache, making me constantly check for infections and erupting wisdom teeth. And it becomes harder to get a restful sleep because it's hard to find a comfortable position and stay asleep. The cherry on top is the extra brain fog.
By no means am I implying that it's easier to deal with another flaring joint! I've had my share of flares that have rendered me housebound and in agony. But there's something about a jaw flare that is totally different for me. It's a flare that allows you to walk around and do tasks, yet still sucks the life out of you. In the past, my mum had to quit a good job when using the phone was too painful. I've had to leave classes because I couldn't handle sitting up in a stiff chair.
In an odd way, I'm lucky many of my loved ones deal with various TMJ issues. They 'get' why I'm so lethargic, or why I can't handle carrying my backpack that day. My loved ones don't question when I need a heating pack on my shoulders and are happy to cater to my soft food diet.
It's hard to go out to a world that isn't forgiving. For me, classes were the worst; not only did I not want to participate, but it was a challenge to keep my eyes open. Working on the computer was torture due to neck pain. Some of my teachers pointed out that I wasn't doing my best. Even though I tried explaining to them, they really didn't understand why I wasn't coping better. How could a bit of jaw pain possibly cause so much disruption? I wished I could've pulled out my x-rays and MRIs that showed inflammation and erosion, but I only had the energy to quietly nod.
It takes time, patience, and resilience to get through a flare. Not only is it hard to live on a soft food diet - it's boring. Being unable to speak isn't just inconvenient, it's painful. Sleep is both desired and dreaded. There are so many everyday things that become nearly impossible; using the phone, typing, carrying anything on your back, yawning, coughing, and so many other things. And I wish others understood this.
Eventually, my flare ended after about a month. And yes, I still had all my teeth. It was difficult to get through, especially when others didn't understand. But I was extremely lucky for the few who did. And I encourage you to open up to loved ones about the gritty details (maybe through an email or handwritten note, if it hurts to talk). And most of all, feel encouraged that you're not alone; through everything I've ever endured because of this disease, isolation was the most painful.
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