Last week a new patient came in for a consultation. She had been having pain in her jaw for quite awhile, but had ignored it. Like many of my new patients, what made her suddenly take it seriously was the terribly frightening experience of waking up with a locked jaw. Eventually her jaw loosened up enough for her to call her dentist and be referred to me. Understandably, she was pretty scared when she walked in the door.
Here’s the backstory:
This patient is a highly successful businesswoman in her early 50’s. She has a high level job as an executive for an international garment manufacturer and manages a large group of employees. She had a lot of responsibility at work, and obligations at home managing the lives of teenage children and watching out for the welfare of her aging parents. As if this was not enough, her daily struggle with a chronic digestion ailment made the challenges of life all the more difficult.
What I was able to uncover in my conversation with this patient was that unbeknownst to her, she had been resting her teeth together and clenching her teeth for a very long time, not just at night, but during the day, as well. From asking the right questions, she realized that she was maintaining a tooth contact position when working on her daily financial reports, when dealing with her bosses, and even when she was on the phone with clients.
Over time, this action of “making a fist in your face” can begin to fatigue the jaw muscles and result in the “locked jaw” and pain that this patient experienced.
You see, the mind-body connection is very strong. When you are under stress for a long period of time, the brain becomes understandably upset. As a result, the brain is unable to maintain control over blood flow, muscle tension, and nerve discharges that are essential for muscle comfort. Loss of this control therefore ultimately leads to an accumulation of irritating chemicals in your muscles like lactic acid, and others that lead to pain and muscle tightening.
In the presence of this irritating chemical environment the nerves that run through your muscles fire excessively and cause pain along with a muscle tightening result. In essence a brain under emotional siege, sets the stage for muscles to falter.
My patient left the office beginning to understand what happened to her jaw. The first thing she has to do is to begin the process of changing the destructive behaviors that had led to her jaw problems. To accomplish this she was provided with strategies designed to relax her jaw, which included a series of breathing exercises that she must do………… but that easily fits into her day.
Beyond treatment therefore, understanding the mind-body connection is the first step to stopping damaging behaviors such as day tooth contact or clenching that often have unpleasant outcomes.
Dr. Donald Tanenbaum is a specialist with offices in New York City and Long Island, NY. He is uniquely qualified to diagnose and treat facial pain associated with TMJ, referred pain, lockjaw, and tooth pain. Find out more at www.tanenbaumtmj.com