What TMJ taught me about listening to my body

The first time a doctor didn’t believe me, I was a little girl. My stomach hurt. I had ultrasounds, antacids, and eventually, a catheter procedure for which I had to stay awake. In the end, there was no diagnosis. The general sense was, “Oh well, whaddyagonna do?” complete with a shoulder shrug and a side of, “Maybe she’s lying for attention.” My parents believed me. That helped.

The second time a doctor didn’t believe me was in college. I had sharp pains in my right side. One ultrasound later, my doctor said she’d call with results. I waited a few days. Then a few weeks. I called the office and left a message. Then another. Until one day, I politely insisted I needed to speak with her.

She spent most of her time lecturing me about not being patient and casually included the fact that my right ovary was covered in cysts. I felt so guilty for breaking the right etiquette; I started looking for a new doctor.


The third time, it was the new guy. I told him my problem and side effects. (Like hair loss.) He laughed at me and explained it’s natural for our hair to thin as we age. I was 27. He was really nice. His charming demeanor did not prevent me from landing in an emergency room shortly thereafter.

The ER doctor unofficially diagnosed me with endometriosis. The specialist I saw afterward confirmed it. I was so happy to have my mystery solved, I wanted to throw them a party. With little hats shaped like ovaries. And cake (shaped like cake).

The fourth time somebody didn’t believe me, it was me. It began as numbness on the left side of my face. After long days at work, it was getting worse. So naturally, I ignored it for a super long time.

I told myself; this is probably just a symptom of having a job where I speak a lot. In hindsight, I just didn’t want to bother any more doctors.

Fast forward a few years, the numbness turned into excruciating pain in my left ear.

via giphy

I finally caved. Lots of hearing tests and one $600 MRI co-pay later, I was diagnosed with Acute TMJD, or Tempromandibular Joint Disorder.

It’s also known as TMD but is most commonly referred to as TMJ. It causes damage to your cartilage, muscles, and bones when you either clench or grind your teeth at night.

More than 15 percent of adult Americans have it. Side effects are headaches, cold sweats, sleeping problems, eye pain, facial numbness, and muscle flutters.

But I’m sure even more people go undiagnosed because they’re too nervous to talk to their doctors. I was told a lot of the damage was done during those few years when I didn’t want to inconvenience anyone.

A simple question at a regular dental cleaning might’ve prevented the whole thing. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zovd9eKvy8s

I tell you all of this to bring up a Golden Girls episode. (I mean, doesn’t it always come back to The Golden Girls?) I remember watching an episode with my grandma in the 90’s. Dorothy sat on a doctor’s exam table and was lectured about exaggerating her symptoms. (Spoiler Alert: She had chronic fatigue syndrome and got to tell the doctor off in a fancy restaurant!)

I remember thinking, thank God that will never happen to me. When I grow up, things will be better. Yeah, I remember having that entire train of thought as a kid…then drawing up intricate plans for how I was going to marry David Bowie. Thanks a lot, the future.

I tell this discombobulated story to remind you, that of all the people in the world you can believe, it’s always safe to start with yourself. Especially when it comes to your body.

You can be certain of what you are feeling. And insistent. It’s wonderful to be polite. In fact, you can be super polite while being certain, insistent, and well informed. None of those qualities are mutually exclusive.

You aren’t the first woman to feel self-doubt or apprehension about health issues.

They wouldn’t have been making Golden Girls episodes about this thirty years ago if that were the case. This insecurity, to be eloquent, is like…a real thing. But it doesn’t have to be. Not for you.

You just have to decide to take your health care into your own hands. Even if you’re feeling intimidated, make those appointments anyway. Call the doctor’s office (with kindness in your voice)  –even if it annoys somebody.

Do it for me and all the women who had to learn the hard way. Do it for Dorothy Zbornack. Do it for yourself.

And oh yeah, ask your dentist if you have TMJD.

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