A few (okay, several) years ago, when I was a sophomore in college, a friend and I had driven home for the weekend.
It was a fall Saturday in the South, so we were at my parents’ house getting ready to watch some football. I’d just walked into my bedroom when I let out a big yawn.
But my mouth stayed open.
The next ten seconds involved me unsuccessfully trying to shut my mouth and shifting into panic mode. It didn’t hurt or anything. IT. JUST. WOULDN’T. CLOSE.
I was operating on two different wavelengths: what my brain was telling my jaw to do and what it was actually doing.Image Credit: Emily Hulsey
I rushed downstairs and found my dad and brother and, since I couldn’t talk, frantically pointed at my face and made grunting noises. I might as well have been acting out a scene from “West Side Story.”
I finally tracked down my mom, who pretty quickly gathered what was going on. Not really knowing what to do, we hopped into the car and headed to the hospital.
After sitting in the crowded waiting room, embarrassed because I had to stuff a rag in my mouth to absorb the saliva I was unable to swallow (and all the staff looked like they were straight out of “Grey’s Anatomy” — young and HOT), I finally got called back.
I was terrified. I had no idea how one fixed stuck jaws. But the doctor explained that the joint had come unhinged and assured me that he’d treated this before.
He gave me a big shot of painkillers, waited a few minutes for the meds to kick in, grabbed my jaw and yanked it back into place. We were then on our merry way.
But before my jaw re-positioning and the multiple-day, drug-induced blur that followed, the doctor told me two things I’d never forget:
“This is more common than you’d think.”
“For a lot of patients, this is caused by stress.”
Recovery included a few weeks of muscle relaxers and painkillers, plus the completely unrealistic instruction to never yawn again — apparently, your jaw’s a lot more likely to pop out of socket if it’s already done so before. And that’s something you want to prevent at all costs, because if it happens too many times, you can end up needing surgery.
The doctor also set me up with a physical therapist who specializes in facial issues. She explained why this had happened and what I could do to prevent it.
It all stems from the temporomandibular joint (TMJ), which you may have heard of. When the muscles around this joint are weak, or one side is much stronger than the other, that joint can be damaged and the jaw’s at risk of being pulled out of place.Image Credit: Dr. Larry Wolford
Some signs of TMJ disorder are:
- Pain in the face, ears, or jaw
- Popping or clicking of the jaw
- Facial pain
- Difficulty opening the jaw
- Difficulty chewing
- Muscle spasms
I had noticed these signs and gotten a mouth guard to keep from grinding my teeth at night, but I hadn’t been doing anything to relax my mind or strengthen the muscles of my jaw. The therapist taught me several exercises I could do at home to achieve this.
What really surprised me — and what has stayed with me to this day — is the emergency room doctor’s mention of stress and the role it played in the ordeal.
By working with the doctors, I learned that my jaw was taking a beating from the stress I was experiencing in life. It was less about the amount of stress, though, than how I was managing it.
Basically, when I was stressed, I’d involuntarily clench my jaw throughout the day and then grind my teeth at night. Dr. Jonathan B. Levine explains why this is an issue:
“Stress makes our jaw do all kinds of dangerous dances of clenching and grinding. The more tension you have, the more you do it. These types of abnormal jaw positioning often begin as myofacial pain disorder (MPD) and develop into temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ), both of which are stress-related.
Such disorders begin with jaw tightness, muscle soreness and pain. If not treated, they can lead to internal displacement, which disrupts the alignment of the disc that separates the lower jaw from the upper jaw (temporomandicular joint).”
This clenching and grinding can be extremely painful. By some estimates, over 10 million Americans have TMJ disorder, though most do not experience jaw dislocation.
TMJ disorder also affects more than twice as many women as men, which my therapist explained happens because many women respond to stress by clenching their jaw, neck, and shoulders, while men often clench their gluteal and leg muscles.
In addition to stress, arthritis and jaw injury can cause it.
It’s hard to believe how much stress can affect our health — not just our minds, but our bodies, too.Image Credit: Age Management Optimal Wellness Center/Holistic Dentistry
The Mayo Clinic emphasizes that it’s important to identify stress as it’s coming on and proactively find ways to manage it:
“Indeed, stress symptoms can affect your body, your thoughts and feelings, and your behavior. Being able to recognize common stress symptoms can give you a jump on managing them. Stress that’s left unchecked can contribute to many health problems, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity and diabetes.”
Some ways to manage stress include prayer and meditation, exercise, eating right, counseling, and picking up a new hobby. You just have to find what works best for you and listen to your body when it’s being over-stressed.
In the years since this happened to me, I’ve had my ups and downs. I’ve been disciplined with my exercises at times, neglectful at others. I’ve had months that are pain-free and days where it hurts to speak. I am still horrible at managing stress.
But above all, whenever I’m going through a particularly trying time and not handling it well, my body reminds me to find a way to calm down.
And I’d better listen.