When you're a kid, day dreaming about what your life is going to look like when you grow up, it never usually includes the battles we find ourselves fighting every day now that we are actually "grown ups". For me, my battle in this season is needing major jaw surgery to correct my TMJ disorder and spending nine months in recovery teaching my jaw how to function again. For you, you're battle might look quite different from mine, but doesn't make it any easier to deal with. Although I never dreamed of this being my reality at 28 years old, God has given me the opportunity to use this mountain in front of me for good. To help others who are quite literally fighting the same battle of TMJ disorder, or fighting a much different battle but still need a message of hope, strength, and reassurance that you aren't alone in this journey.
So here it goes...
In April 2017, I started having pretty bad jaw pain. It was a constant, dull pain but was becoming more noticeable and painful over time. I spoke with my dentist who I've been going to since birth and he recommended I go see a local TMJ specialist, Dr. Louis Vita, so I could figure out what was truly going on. I had braces in 5th grade and have been wearing a retainer ever since so I wasn't sure if my teeth were starting to shift or if I was outgrowing my retainer but I wanted to figure out what was causing this pain. So I schedule an appointment with Dr. Vita who is located in Clifton, NJ.
During my appointment, he asked me a lot of questions about my pain level, if I was experiencing pain anywhere else on my body (the answer was yes), he took measurements of how wide I could open my mouth, took some pictures of my neck and face and started walking me through what he thought was going on.
First of all, I had NO IDEA how much your jaw affects the rest of your body. I was learning that the back and shoulder pain I had for years was because of my jaw and that my arm and leg numbness is not normal. During that half hour meeting with Dr. Vita, my eyes were opened to the intricacies and depth of the TMJ world. Only a couples weeks before, I thought TMJ was when your jaw locked and you couldn't shut your mouth (which it is, but only one symptom out of many, many TMJ disorder symptoms).
Dr. Vita asked that I go get an MRI so he could truly see what was going on and diagnose me properly even though he had a general idea. So I did and a few weeks later, I was back in his office to review the scans and discuss my diagnosis and treatment options.
Dr. Vita concluded that I had a growth deficiency in my jaw bones which allowed my disks to slip out of place over time. The reason I started feeling pain now is because of it's progressive nature - over the years it's gotten worse and will continue to get worse if I don't take care of it. My disks are so out of place that it restricts how wide I can open my mouth and causes pain when I chew food, talk for too long or smile too much.
I grew up playing sports my whole life (softball, cheerleading, basketball, gymnastics, etc) and was a normal kid who fell off her bike, tumbled off sleds while rolling down a hill, and getting hit in the face plenty of times while playing said sports above. Dr. Vita said my growth deficiency probably stemmed from something that occurred during childhood but this event didn't have to be super traumatic or a huge accident, it could have been triggered by anything. (My mom is still trying to recount every single fall or knock in the face that I've had since birth.... I'm trying to convince her that there was no way she could have prevented this. So far... no luck. Love you mom).
After Dr. Vita explained all of this to me, he walked through several treatment options ranging from wearing a night guard for pain management all the way to having open joint surgical repair (AKA natural disk replacement), which was the recommended treatment. I'll explain more about what the surgery entails in another post. Because my condition has progressed so much and I'm still pretty young (27 at the time of my appointment), Dr. Vita said having this surgery was the only way to properly address the defects in my TMJ. Obviously this was a lot to take in and I wasn't expecting this outcome. Only a few short weeks ago, I went into my dentist with some jaw pain and in the blink of an eye, I was told I needed major jaw surgery to fix the problem.
On top of ALL that, he told me that the surgeon he works with, Dr. Mark Piper, is based in St. Petersburg, Florida! So not only did I need major surgery but I would need to go to a surgeon in Florida and spend 15 days down there pre- and post-op.
I went to this follow up appointment alone and I don't think the overwhelming shock hit me until I was in the car on my way home talking with my mom. I suddenly burst into tears when it finally sank in that I didn't really have any other option and needed to have this surgery. Then I called my husband, Brett, to let him know the diagnosis and treatment options and it all started feeling way too real.
After Brett and I had the chance to talk through things and I was able to let out all of my emotions, we scheduled another appointment so Brett could hear everything first hand from Dr. Vita and ask any additional questions he had.
Those couple of days following my appointment were really hard. When life throws you a curveball and brings on things you weren't planning for or expecting, it's hard to adjust and change your expectation of what "your plan" for life is. God has a funny way of always showing you who is truly in control.
It took a year and a half of discussing, praying, considering, waiting, and planning before we made the decision as a family (and by family I mean husband, mom, dad, granny - it takes a village people) that it was the right time to get the ball rolling on this.
So here we are on September 9, 2018. My mom and I just arrived in St. Petersburg, Florida for my consultation at Dr. Piper's office tomorrow. We'll be getting confirmation on my diagnosis, scheduling my surgery date, get a better understanding of everything that needs to happen for surgery and all that I need to do to prepare. I'll be writing a few more posts on scheduling and preparing for my consultation and what happens throughout the day during my consultation. So check back for those!
I also created a resources page where I'm sharing all of my doctors information and will continue to add things as I get further into the process. So make sure to check that out if you are looking for more answers on your TMJD or are prepping for surgery yourself!