where wildly different is perfectly normal
The jaw bone is connected to the psyche
The jaw bone is connected to the psyche

The jaw bone is connected to the psyche

People find it hard to believe that I lived in Colorado for 14 years and never once went skiing. At first it was because we had moved out there so I could get my masters in flute. Breaking something, as I was not a skier by any stretch of the imagination, was a very real possibility and I wasn’t up for taking the chance. Then it just became because I hate being cold, and spending a great deal of money for the privilege of being cold was just insane. But mainly it was the “I don’t want to break anything because dude, I’m a flutist and don’t want to go through that nightmare” that kept me off the slopes.

I may not be a professional flutist, but I’m still so mindful of the bits and pieces that must work to play the flute. We got nearly a foot of snow here yesterday, and it snowed the better part of today. It’s slipperier than snot on teflon in places. Knock wood I haven’t wiped out in years, but if God FORBID I go head over heels I will do everything physics will allow me to do to break a lower extremity rather than anything from the shoulder on down. This is a very long winded way of saying that I’m rather put out by my jaw.

I’ve been playing flute for 30 years. I am no longer professional level quality, and I’ve more or less made my peace with that. I am a dedicated amateur (definition: for the love of it) and passionate teacher. But regardless of level or skill, I need my bits to all work smoothly or music shall not be made. Hands are arthritis-free (thank GOD), shoulders and neck tense but functional. Jaw? Effed up beyond recognition.

I’ve long had TMJ, though I’ve never had an “official” diagnosis. I’ve always managed to keep it in check with massage therapy, so it hasn’t really been a problem. After my jaw locked shut in grad school (a nightmare I hope to never repeat…the jaw, not grad school, though I won’t be repeating that either), I vowed that would never happen again. And it hasn’t. But then 2011 (The Year I Pray To Never Repeat) hit, and I haven’t had a decent massage in nearly two years. Last fall I started having problems with my right ear (the TMJ is on that side). Random shooting pain while cold-free, sudden and inexplicable problems hearing (and I really don’t need that, as I was told 20-odd years ago that I already had hearing loss in that ear), that sort of thing. It never went away, and I finally put on my big girl undies and called the ENT.

Let’s take a quick moment and talk doctors. Doctors are not supposed to be my age, or introduce themselves by their first names. They’re supposed to be much older and dignified and crap I’m getting old. Get off my lawn. It’s somewhere under that foot of snow.

I saw the ENT today, and played “raise the hand” with his audiologist. Learned a couple things. 1) When a doctor has his hands on your jaw and has you move it to see the extent of the problem, it’s really really not good if he reacts with “whoaahghagh yeah that’s some TMJ” and 2) I do not have hearing loss in any way, shape, or form. In fact, he said I had the best hearing he’d ever seen, like, super hearing. <insert stunned face here> Now, while that’s some damned awesome news, it raises some questions. Like, do I have the central auditory processing disorder that A has been diagnosed with, because I am unable to carry on a conversation if the ambient volume is above, say, that of a library? The doctor did say I likely have inflammation of the Eustachian tube on that side, which is probably causing the funky hearing and pain and ear popping. Hoping the spray he prescribed helps (and frankly, I’m sick of getting prescriptions; my medicine cabinet thinks I’m twice my age).

But the TMJ. Now that I know my hearing is fine…better than fine…super hero level fine…I can hear your thoughts fine…I have to decide what I want to do. The doctor gave me the info of a local dentist who specializes in screwed up heads. Thankfully, this is a structural thing for a change, and not the usual internal/mental screwed up head I have to take care of. But I know it won’t be cheap and I guarandamntee not a cent will be covered by insurance. So I get to juggle the conundrum of fix the actual problem for a gazillion dollars or just manage symptoms with massage therapy every four weeks for half a gazillion.

I know you’re thinking “DOOR NUMBER ONE! GET IT FIXED!,” but even if cost wasn’t an issue I’d be torn–because I don’t know what the treatment will do to my jaw, and thus to my flute playing. Playing the flute takes a great deal of jaw movement, and any change with how my jaw moves will change my sound. And dammit, I’ve worked too long and too hard to sound good. I worked hard last summer and nailed the principal flute chair of a new local (and damned fine) wind ensemble, and I do not want to lose that. I love to play, it fills my soul in ways nothing else does, and if fixing my jaw means I’d have to give that up…I’d almost rather stay broken.

So I will chew on this for awhile…on the left side. That side doesn’t hurt and pop and make disturbing grinding sounds. With my Super Hero Hearing, it’s really loud.


  1. Trish

    I also have TMJ, and it’s definitely gotten worse in the past couple of years (stress clenching will do that). My wonderful dentist basically has advised me to stay away from anything too crunchy (bye Grape-Nuts and Oatmeal Squares!) or chewy (caramel candy, even baguettes). That definitely helps keep the pain down. Loooong ago I had a doctor who advised me against getting any kind of invasive surgery for TMJ, because he said it wasn’t generally that effective — a case of the cure being worse than the disease. But that was almost 20 years ago, and while he was handsome, he was not the best doctor overall (he’s also the one who ignored my constant migraines).

    Good luck! I hope there is a way to either manage or repair your TMJ!

  2. Mona

    I’m in the process of having my TMJ fixed by a specialized orthodontist. DEFINITELY worth doing. I’ve been wearing an occlusial splint (basically takes the teeth out of the equation allowing the jaw and muscles to relax back into their normal place) for almost a year, and will get braces soon (as soon as hubby has a job again) to make the change permanent. The splint literally helped from the first day I started wearing it.

    Definitely worth it. Definitely. And you can take the splint out for flute practice and performances.

  3. You know my saga with the jaw splint. Like a commenter above, it helped from the moment he put it in. That being said, having to eat with it in and going through the months and months of pure hell may not be what you want to do. I’ve never played a flute, but it was hard enough to learn how to talk again, let alone get beautiful music to come out of anything related to my mouth.

    And, then, when I was finally able to take it out, there was a learning curve on how to speak normally withOUT it in.

    I got it. Eventually. Now, you can’t even tell. (Or so they say…)

    BUT, with my situation, I was told that if I didn’t do something to fix the problem, it would turn into a problem that wasn’t fixable. That scared me half to death, so I did it.

    Now, my teeth don’t touch (but my jaw is in perfect alignment! Yay!), so I can’t physically eat crunchy or chewy foods.

    Ask me about my diet plan. I call it “two birds, one giant mandibular splint.” I’ve lost over 20 lbs, so it’s not all bad. 😉


    I understand your hesitation, but I’d hate for you to not address the issue and then wake up one day not being able to open or close your mouth and have them say they CAN’T fix it.

    Is your crystal ball working? Maybe try that… 😉

    Good luck!!

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