“Life is Suffering,” is the Buddhist concept known as Dukkha. It is the first Noble Truth. We all have our own path that can be littered with tough times, some harder than others. While I believe that my whole life I have been aligned with this path, I am going to share the physical suffering I went through that was a major catalyst for leaving the Matrix world to step into a magical world of trust, patience, and faith. I will try to paint the picture…
Let’s start with a migraine.
If you haven’t been blessed with the experience, know that they are nasty things. Head pain and pressure so intense it can make you nauseous. Like a freight train going through the brain, or your head has been placed in a vise, squeezed tighter and tighter. Everything is more sensitive, a small night light can seem so bright that it feels like someone is burning your eyeballs out with a hot poker. But wait, there is more.
Add a sphenoid sinus infection.
The sphenoid sinuses are located behind the eyes. It feels like there is a balloon filling up the eye sockets that want to push the eyeballs right out of your head. You also get the normal sinus issues with an infection: pressure around the face, nasal obstruction, congestion, post nasal drip, cough, and a cold that just never seems to go away. Sounds wonderful, right?
Don’t forget about an ear infection.
There is an intense pressure on the ear drums. So much you hear a ringing in your ears. Ringing that comes from standing in front of the speakers at a heavy metal concert all last night. Combine that with the pressure in the muscles and bones around the ear, which can throw off your sense of balance, making you dizzy and uncoordinated. Let’s throw in some neck and shoulder pain for good measure.
As if that wasn’t enough, imagine a heavyweight boxer give you a good punch in the jaw.
At least that is what it will feel like on the bad days. Your face swells up, it is hard to chew, and your teeth hurt. Let’s add some whiplash symptoms of neck an shoulder pain. It sucks. It just sucks.
Now imagine having all of that at once, all day, every day, for three years.
Welcome to my life. It was madness. This pain induced delirium, which consumed most of my days. Knocking myself unconscious or plunging a knife into my eye was some of my desperate notions of pain relief. My brain, muddled into mush, could not produce a clear thought. I felt like a depressed zombie. I was invisibly paralyzed and crippled. Every doctor and specialist just shrugged and said, “Everything checks out ok, we don’t know why you are in pain. Here are some pills.”
How did I put myself in such a predicament?
I started clenching when I was in the seventh grade. It was that awkward age when puberty begins and kids can be cruel to each other. Between the bullying and my parents getting divorced, the pressure built up. Whenever I would be stressed, mad, or annoyed I would clench my teeth together.
No one had taught me how to cope appropriately with all of these negative emotions. Instead of expressing my feelings, I kept everything bottled up. I would clench so hard my teeth would squeak. I didn’t think anything of it at the time. I had enough on my mind. I pushed the dull, nagging pains under the rug and kept moving forward.
I wrestled in High School and was an avid weightlifter, it felt good to be active. I worked at a quick oil change shop my junior and senior year which was a physically demanding job. After completion of high school I continued my education at a Tech college and got a diploma in Automotive Maintenance. The physicality of the jobs I worked helped to balance stress and my lack of coping skills in challenging or negative situations.
After a year and a half I was downsized at the dealership I was working at because I made too much money. Frustration prompted me to re-enter school to pursue marketing. I was very motivated to have my own business so that I would not have to think about losing my job.
I took a job at a motorcycle dealership as a service manager while I went to school full time. I spent most of the day on my feet and hit the gym a few times a week. After my second graduation, I moved to a music venue as their marketing coordinator so that I could flex my newly acquired skills. The new job was super fun, but it was late and long hours. I was getting burned out with all the late nights and concerts.
There is not a lot of money in promoting at the level that I was working. The lack of funds stressed me out. The fun benefits of the job did not outweigh living paycheck to paycheck. I was tired of working so hard and not having money to do what I wanted. Freelance sales seemed like the logical solution: the harder I work, the more I make.
When I moved into sales, I took a full commission job, which can be rewarding and stressful. I was so consumed with making money that I stopped taking care of my body. Eating out constantly with clients made it hard to make healthy eating choices, not to mention the drinking. Sitting at a desk for most of the day does not make for good posture, neither does driving in a car. Full commission means if the client doesn’t pay, you don’t get paid. There are tons of little things that can mess that up. A whole new level of stress emerged. All of those elements ramped up my grinding exponentially. I would be so exhausted by the end of my day I would just collapse, exercise was no longer a priority. My new lifestyle created the perfect storm to properly ruin my life for over three years.
The headaches started slowly at first; I thought they were just stress headaches, but they were becoming more frequent and the pain levels were rising. I figured my family doctor of over 10 years was a good place to start. He had seen me wracked with pain in the past without complaints so he knew it was serious when I came in search of relief. He gave me the best pain pills he could. You know the list of side effects on the side of the bottle? Oh yeah, I got them all. The pills didn’t stop the pain either; they just got me really high. It was like being drunk, nauseous, and in pain. Not a great mix.
The doctor needed more information, so he ordered up some X-rays of my head. First was a Computed Tomography (CT) scan to check out my sinuses, then a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scan to check out my brain. The scans are basically expensive photos, which you then have to pay someone else to analyze, and then give that report to your doctor. It was a tortoise-paced process that literally costs thousands of dollars. The scans were non-conclusive.
After three months of actively seeking treatment, my frustrations and symptoms got increasingly worse. The vision in my right eye started to become blurry. After a full eye exam, the doctor assured me I had 20/20 vision and there was nothing wrong with my eyes. More money spent with no answers, lots of pain, and I was now losing my eyesight. Things were looking bleak.
Exhausting my family physician’s abilities, I was sent to a Neurologist, and I apologize if you are one, or are friends with one: WHAT A QUACK. The doctor had me strip down to nothing and put on a paper gown. He flashed a light in my eyes and hit me with a little hammer to test the reactions on my knees and asked me a few basic call-sheet questions. Without any real explanation or further testing, he wrote out a prescription for seizure medication. I never complained of seizures or symptoms indicating a seizure at any time. He told me that it might lower the frequency of headaches I was getting from everyday to a few days a week, but the side effects would cause me to gain weight and lose my hair. Needless to say, I did not fill the prescription, nor did I ever return to that office.
After a year of misdiagnoses from different “specialists” that were outrageously expensive, I tried chiropractic care. They did an X-ray of my neck and saw that my C2 and C3 vertebrae were twisted, cutting off circulation to the right side of my head. After three months of treatment two-three times per week, I had a brief moment of relief. I remember the feeling vividly. When she cracked my neck I felt a release, a coldness swept through my brain, followed by a rush of warm soothing relief. Unfortunately, it was short lived. Within seconds the pain was flooded my brain and body. I was instantly nauseous as I doubled over in pain. That moment was bittersweet, but it did leave something behind:
After a year of spending thousands of dollars and being in pain, a light glimmered at the end of the proverbial tunnel. My chiropractor was great, but for me it felt like it was only a temporary fix. With my new found hope, I pressed forward in pursuit of a pain-free life.
To address the pain in my sinuses, I went to my Otolaryngologist (Ear, nose, throat or ENT). I had a history of sinus infections and I ear tubes when I was a kid, so I had a doctor that I felt comfortable with. He did a scope of my sinuses, which is as pleasant as you would think sticking a camera up your nose and poking around would be. The itch that you get when you need to sneeze is nothing compared to that. It is not a quick process either; they take their time to look at everything in the sinuses. The scope was inconclusive, but this was not a wasted visit. He mentioned something about a Temporomandibular Joint(TMJ) Disorder and I suggested seeing a specialist.
What is Temporomandibular Joint Disorder?
Temporomandibular disorders (TMD), commonly called TMJ, are a complex and poorly understood set of conditions characterized by pain in the jaw joint and surrounding tissues as well as limitation in jaw movements. Injury and other conditions that routinely affect other joints in the body, such as arthritis, also affect the temporomandibular joint. One or both joints may be involved, and depending on the severity, they can affect a person’s ability to speak, eat, chew, swallow, make facial expressions, breathe, and can cause pain.
Also included under the heading of TMJ are conditions involving the jaw muscles. These may accompany the jaw joint problems or occur independently. They are often confused with jaw joint problems because they produce similar signs and symptoms.
The muscular structure of the human body is fascinating. Everything is interconnected so when one area is injured or in pain, multiple areas in the body can be affected by it. For example: lower back pain can stem from the feet not landing properly on the ground. Below are physical symptoms experienced by people afflicted with TMJ.
- Clicking, popping, or grating sounds in the jaw joint
- Difficulty chewing
- Swelling on the side of the face
- Neck aches
- Dizziness and Nausea
- Ear pain and ringing
- hearing problems
- upper shoulder pain
Remember, for those who experience pain from TMJ, treatment may start away from the jaw to address the interconnectivity of the human body as a system. Aside from these physical symptoms, other, less obvious symptoms that are caused or affected by TMJ are mental.
Suffering from physical pain is typically easy to notice in other people. Their face will tell the pain or the way they move is limited. What is hardly seen is the pain that affects the spirit. While physical pain wracks the body, mental and emotional pain slowly grinds down the soul in many ways, including:
- Difficulty making decisions
- Mood swings
The first visit with the TMJ specialist was different from the other specialists I had seen. The nurse asked way more questions: where do you have pain?; does it hurt here?; do your ears ring? The list went on and on; I found myself answering yes to almost every question, most of which were pains in areas I had not noticed before she asked, due to being overwhelmed in other areas. Once she was done, the doctor came in and read over everything and asked me a few more questions. He measured how far I could open my mouth, which he told me was not optimal. The following examination changed my life. He stuck his fingers deep inside my ears and asked me to open my mouth wide and then clench my teeth together. When I closed my mouth there was a loud crack that sounded like a major league player breaking a baseball bat. It felt like they broke the bat on the side of my head. I was dizzy, my ears were ringing, and I wanted to vomit. He smiled and announced that I had a TMJ disorder.
That moment was odd. I was relieved to finally know what was wrong with me, but at the same time the pain I was experiencing was so intense I kind of wanted to cry and puke at the same time. He was nice enough to apologize for the pain I was in, but he was positive when he told me that he could fix me without surgery. I was a perfect candidate for occlusal splint therapy, which is long and painful process. The splint is made out of acrylic and metal and has been molded to fit your mouth. The splint usually has a ramp to leverage your jaw into a desired position using your own clenching.
I had to wear a splint for at least a year before I only had to wear it when I slept. The goal was to move my lower jaw back into the proper place, which was about an inch forward. For five months I had to wear the splint 24/7 and then I would be able to slowly wean myself off of it to only wearing it when I slept.
Excitement overwhelmed me. Finally, someone had answers to my symptoms and they were not just pushing pills down my throat. The next step was to get x-rayed and molded for the splint. Due to their scheduling, I would not get the splint for five weeks! Which was hard to swallow being so desperate for relief. I reminded myself that I had an answer AND a plan to treat it. Hope is what got me through those five weeks.
After the scans, molding, and waiting, I got my splint. I didn’t really know what to expect, this isn’t your kid’s retainer from braces. I couldn’t even close my lips when I wore it, let alone speak normally. It was like trying to talk with marbles in your mouth.
If you remember, at that time I was a salesman, talking is 80% of what I did. My lack of fluency hurt my sales, and my income. I was depressed from pain and the more I spoke or chewed, the pain in my face and head increased. Motivating salespeople is hard enough without the health issues that I was dealing with. My income slipped further and further into the realm of poverty while my stress levels rose. The pain from the splint was more than what it was without it, but they said it was going to get worse before it got better. I had physical therapy appointments once a week and I had to spend 30 minutes two-three times a day doing exercises on my jaw and neck. These activities were taxing on my ever-diminishing energy level. I couldn’t sleep or eat properly either. I was exhausted physically and mentally.
The biggest struggles of surviving were staying positive and not giving up. I felt overwhelmed from the moment I woke up to the time I went to bed. The first three months were more pain than I had before and it took another three months before it got back to where I started. I had dealt with lots of pain in my life: a broken ankle, multiple trips to the ER to get stitches, and plenty of times I should have gone to the ER instead decided to slap some tape on it and finish the job. I have plenty of scars to prove it. This pain, however, was behind my eye and in my brain. It seemed almost impossible to focus on anything but the pain; I couldn’t make decisions, or even think. I was not myself and it would effecting everything and everyone in my life.
“The opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality, and it was vitality that seemed to seep away from me in that moment.” – Andrew Solomon
Solomon hit the nail on the head. Depression is a huge issue for chronic pain suffers, and I had it bad. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, symptoms of depression may include the following:
- Difficulty concentrating, remembering details, and making decisions
- Fatigue and decreased energy
- Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, and/or helplessness
- Feelings of hopelessness and/or pessimism
- Insomnia, early-morning wakefulness, or excessive sleeping
- Irritability, restlessness
- Loss of interest in activities or hobbies once pleasurable, including sex
- Overeating or appetite loss
- Persistent aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems that do not ease even with treatment
- Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” feelings
- Thoughts of suicide, suicide attempts
Before TMJ I was a pretty upbeat guy. I was always making people laugh and I knew how to enjoy life. During my experience with TMJ I felt I had lost myself. I was a zombie, a shell of who I used to be. I felt empty and without purpose. Most days I woke up and could not come up with a reason to get out of bed.
With the constrictions in my neck and TMJ, my prefrontal cortex (logic part of the brain) was starved of blood I had difficulty making decisions and controlling my mood. Typically, I excelled at making decisions and exuded confidence in everything that I did. Feeling helplessly lost and crippled by pain, I slipped further and further into a depression spiral. I checked off every box on the depression list. My friends and family helped me get through this dark time, but they could only do so much. I needed to do more for myself to heal, both mentally and physically.
My depression put a big strain on the relationships with people close to me. Watching me squirm in pain trying to be supportive is exhausting. I knew it was hard on them, so I tried to hide my pain. I did such a good job that most people I met were surprised if they found out I was suffering from TMJ pain. It was not helpful, it made me feel isolated.
Pain, depression, and isolation made me irritable. I made mountains out of molehills all the time. I got angry over silly things constantly. Leaving something on the counter or not picking up dirty clothes on the floor turned into a huge fight, because I was bottling my frustrations with my physical health and project them on to my loved ones.
I soon learned that hiding my pain was not a good coping mechanism. Being honest and open with how I felt that day was the best way to cope. I had to treat it like I was seeing a doctor. Let them know where my pain levels were on a scale of 1-10. Telling everyone where my pain was and my mental state prepared them for the day ahead of us on how I may reach to certain situations. It also helped me gauge my recovery.
After a few months of the pain levels going down, I would have a level 9 pain day, typically when it rained or snowed (the change in air pressure would swell the joints in my jaw). I would become scared and upset because I feared regression back to my former health. A reminder of my progress in the big picture was reassuring. Writing things out in a journal or blog was a helpful tool in recovering. This is the beginning of this story, more to come.
If you would like to spend time with me in my home in Guatemala and learn how I shifted my life from chronic pain to pleasure check out