It happens without warning: a jaunty tune blares from my iPad speakers, startling me so badly that I nearly drop my spoon. It’s chipper in a no-hold-barred kind of way, conjuring up images of sipping syrupy cocktails on a warm beach in Saint-Tropez—not something I would ever have the funds, time, or inclination to do, but the imagery is there regardless. It’s 11:00am, time for my next set of jaw exercises—the second of six for the day. I hastily finish my instant oats, taking care not to open my mouth too widely or too quickly, then settle in.
Thankfully, this element of my treatment plan is both quick and hands-free, a benediction when you spend all day swapping between your keyboard and your five-month-old’s play mat. I’m not so lucky with everything—I’ve also been told to apply moist heat for twenty minutes up to three times a day, and I’ve yet to figure out a way to do it that frees up even one hand. But this—this I can do in thirty seconds, while the Tropezian tune—my device’s alarm feature calls it “By the Seaside”—continues to bounce along. I touch my tongue to the roof of my mouth, as though I’m forming the letter N (a skill my five-month-old has yet to master), and open it as wide as it will go without my tongue falling away, holding the position for six seconds. This is, unsurprisingly, called the “N Stretch.” I then proceed to the dicier one, which my handout (#4A) calls a “Passive Opening Stretch.” Using index finger and thumb, I pry my jaw open until it won’t stretch any further, holding this position also for six seconds. This one always scares me because I can feel my right condyle—the rounded part of my jaw joint—grinding slightly as I do it, and I’ve been told clicking and grinding can cause irreparable damage to the joint, but I’ve made a resolution to carry out this treatment plan, exactly as instructed, for the next three weeks.
I have no confidence that this will do anything to help my underlying issues, and I’m terrified that it will make them worse, pushing what could have been a benign, temporary condition past the point of no return into a lifelong, chronic malady—but I have to try, if only so I can tell the next specialist, “See? I tried this, and it accomplished nothing.” So I’ll be sticking to a diet of exclusively soft foods, checking myself every thirty minutes to make sure my teeth aren’t touching—which, so far, they’ve never been; benefit of being a mouth-breather—limiting my range of facial expression (sorry, baby; no funny faces today), doing those stretches and heat treatments, and wearing the nightguard my dentist crafted every night, even though it makes my bite feel weird every time I take it off, and even though I never even had jaw pain or popping or grinding until I started wearing a nightguard (thankfully, my dentist busted a hole in that one trying to adjust it, so I have an excuse never to wear it again; the new one at least doesn’t have me waking up at midnight feeling like I’ve been hit by a double-decker bus). I’m going to try.
In this series, I’m going to attempt to reconstruct exactly what happened—what is still happening—to get me to this point. Because, without access to a treatment plan that actually works, without even knowing definitively what the issue is, there’s not much else I can do. I’m going to tell my story in the dim hope that somebody, anybody, knows what the hell is going on.