“What’s gonna happen to Chess Piece Face?”

A couple months ago, I started getting this pain in the left side of my head, behind my ear. It felt like I was wearing a tight headband. It would just come on for a couple minutes and then go away. That started happening more frequently, until there was just a constant pain behind my ear. I got a little concerned. Then it started hurting in my ear. I got slightly less concerned – maybe I just had an ear infection or wax buildup or something. I tried some Debrox drops and decided if it didn’t get better in a couple days, I’d go to the doctor. Then I started getting a pain in the back of my head, like at the base of my skull, and I started worrying again – what if I had meningitis or something?!

So I finally went to the doctor, and she basically took one look at me and said, “TMJ.” I have had TMJ issues for a while now. Five years ago I went to see a TMJ specialist. Since then, I’ve just lived with my retainers that I had modified in like 2004 or 2005, and everything’s been fine. But apparently I had a “flare up,” which caused the whole left side of my face to be inflamed (I didn’t really notice that until she pointed it out), and strained all the various muscles of my head. She gave me some Ibuprofen for the inflammation, and muscle relaxers to take at night so I wouldn’t clench my jaw so much in my sleep, giving it a chance to heal.

I took the anti inflammatory, but put off taking the muscle relaxer as long as I could. I have never taken any kind of sedative, been under anesthesia, or anything like that, and I was nervous about what kind of effect it would have. The first night I took it, I had GG set an alarm to wake up in the middle of the night and check that I was still breathing. But guess what – not only did I not die, it was amazing. My face felt fabulous the next morning.

I actually had a dental appointment that same week, so I mentioned it to them as well. They remained unconcerned about my condition (despite having several minor chipped teeth in the past year, likely due to grinding), and suggested I go back to the orthodontist to have my retainer bulked up. (My theory was that I’d chewed my retainer down those last couple millimeters to where my teeth were touching and grinding at night again, causing the flare-up.) So I went there, which is always a surreal experience because the office is filled with middle and high school students getting their braces adjusted. They took my retainer for a week and thickened it up in the front so there was no way my back teeth could meet. Meanwhile, I relied on bedtime muscle relaxers to keep me from getting my jaw-related headaches. When I got it back a week later, it needed a little adjusting, and then they had me come back a couple weeks after that to see how it was and make any final adjustments. They want me to come again in three months just to make sure everything is still ok. (Meanwhile, I think I will need to go sooner because my teeth must be hitting it strangely and I’ve already chewed an edge out of shape in less than a week.)

I’m trying one other thing for my jaw, something I’ve been wanting to do for a while. I finally found an acupuncturist, and I just finished visit four (of about ten). He’s a real Chinese doctor, so you know it’s authentic. He specializes in pain management, and I’d read reviews from people who went to him for acupuncture and he ended up giving them injections or something. I really wanted to try acupuncture, so I just went in, told him what was going on, and that I’d read that acupuncture could really help with TMJ. He agreed, and explained about the treatment. Then he stuck a bunch of pins in me.

I’d tried reading up on acupuncture, but I guess I wasn’t really prepared – and it’s different every time. He’s been doing 10-15 needles each time, mostly in the left side of my jaw (that’s the side that clicks), but sometimes the right side; also a couple in the top of my head; a couple in my right hand and wrist; and a couple in my right foot and/or leg. The first time I went, I didn’t know where he’d need to reach so I wore loose clothes. He just did my head, hand, and foot. So the next time, I wore jeans, and that time he decided he needed to do one up by my knee, and I had to roll up my pant leg. Then he focuses a heat lamp on a certain area (the side of my face, or my hand) to warm the needles for more effect. And he’ll hook up two needles (two in my leg/foot, or one in my foot and one in my wrist) to this low electrical pulse thing.

The needles don’t really hurt at all, though they seem to get more uncomfortable every time. Also, I thought I would be laying down, but I guess because of where he needs to do the needles, I sit up in a chair, with a pillow on my lap for my arms to rest on. He sets me up with the needles and the lamp and the electric thingy, then turns off the lights and leaves me for like half an hour, during which time I try to zone out and relax (though I usually just think about a bunch of stuff I need to do). Then I hear a timer go off somewhere, and he shows up and pulls all the needles out and I go home.

He says after about ten visits my jaw should stop popping – we’ll see about that – but that I should also continue taking the muscle relaxers for 3-6 months to help prevent further damage. So right now I’m not sure if any improvement I’ve noticed is due to the acupuncture or the pills. (I’m ruling out the change to my retainer, because that was really just to build back what had already been there.) But anyone I know who’s tried acupuncture has had great results, and everyone is very curious to see how it works out for me. I’ll keep you posted!

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