Blog Post: Living, Thriving with Chronic Pain due to TMJ DIsorder
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TMJ Disorder: Living, Thriving with Chronic Pain

I’ve been living with TMJ disorder since I was 12. Since then, pain has always been my normal.

For most of my life, I allowed TMJ disorder to shape my personality, drive my decisions, limit the aspirations I have for myself, and even affect my motivation to live.

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But I am also wildly ambitious. On good days, when the physical pain is bearable and there aren’t enough triggers to cause me emotional breakdown, I dream.

I dream of myself speaking before people, I picture my face smiling as I hold a book that I wrote, I imagine myself normal: beautiful, lovable, and free of the physical and emotional pains that my condition has caused.

What is TMD

If you’ve never heard of temporomandibular disorder (TMD), it’s a condition that affects the temporomandibular or jaw joints, chewing muscles, and facial nerves. The symptoms and the severity of these symptoms could look different for different people, but the most common ones include:

  • stiffness or tenderness of the jaws,
  • popping sound when opening or closing the mouth,
  • facial pain (sometimes radiating down the neck and shoulders),
  • discomfort around or inside the ears (buzzing sound or the feeling that there’s air trapped inside),
  • teeth grinding or clenching, 
  • a misaligned bite,
  • sinus issues, and
  • breathing problems.

Most TMD patients I know have the condition as an invisible illness. They appear totally normal when you look at them, but they battle with mild to severe TMD-related pain on a daily basis.

In my case, TMD is both an invisible and visible company. I have all the symptoms mentioned above. And if you look at my face closely, it’s easy to see how uneven it is because of my misaligned bite.

How I Learned I Have TMD

I was 12 years old and in sixth grade when my siblings noticed a slight change on my face. I actually couldn’t see what my siblings saw during that time, but they were saying that one of my cheeks looked slightly bigger than the other. However, because my cheeks didn’t feel swollen, we didn’t think it was a big problem.

I also remember having frequent headaches back then, but I thought that that was normal. I thought maybe I wasn’t eating enough vegetables or my hair had gotten too long and too heavy for my head.

A little bit of context: my family wasn’t well to do back then. We had just enough to get by, and doctor appointments were a luxury we could barely afford. I was also recovering from Primary Complex during that time, so we were already spending a lot on my medication.

In high school, my bite deviation became even more obvious. Then, before my junior year, I learned how to use the Internet. And so here’s one of the first things I did online: I researched my symptoms.

I typed my worst symptoms—headache, face deformity, jaw pain, pain inside the nose when reading aloud—on the search bar then hit enter. It was then that I learned about TMD. I read articles, read stories from patients, and then the realization came: this is my condition, and there’s no sure cure.

Yes, there were treatments and massages and therapies and surgeries. But there’s no assurance that they’ll work the way patients would like them to.

Almost all of the patient stories I read ended with hopelessness. One woman had spent thousands of dollars on treatments that didn’t work, a lady just wanted to opt out and kill herself, a guy couldn’t keep a day job because of the physical pain.

The sad stories were heart-wrenching, and I felt how they felt: hopeless.

During college, I was finally able to meet with an orthodontist who confirmed what I already knew: that my condition was TMD. He recommended that I undergo splint therapy for several months then get braces, but he also said that my bite might never be fully corrected.

I did all the things my family could afford. I wore a splint for several months then braces for years. Unfortunately, most of my symptoms remained the same.

Living with TMD Then

TMD affected a lot of things in my life. For most of my teenage years, it was an illness that I loathed and lived in denial of. I refused to think about it and avoided conversations related to my jaws.

But it kept catching up on me.

Just when I felt that I was excelling academically, a classmate would comment on the way I talk—the odd way that my upper and lower teeth met.

Just when I started feeling beautiful, a stranger would ask if I were eating candy or my cheek was just swollen.

Just when I felt excited about the future because of my new-found passion for writing, facial and neck pain crept in—leaving me unable to do anything but stay in bed and wallow in self-pity.

Reshaping my Self-Image

High school was tough. My battle during that time was more on how I looked and less on the physical pain TMD punished me with.

Though I felt respected by my classmates, the subtle comments here and there stuck with me. I was different, I knew. And if a pretty face were the key to a happy future, I knew I’d be condemned to a lonely life. 

There were so many days when I wanted to die, so many nights when I just wanted to opt out. But I wasn’t the kind who declared her loneliness to the world. I’ve learned how to keep a tough front early in life, specifically because I lost my father at the age of seven. And so, I just kept living my days, doing my best in school, and avoiding thoughts about my condition.

I scheduled my emotional breakdowns. I only cried when there were too many triggers. When I hear comments I didn’t want to hear, I pretended as if I didn’t hear them. 

I’d wait until my heart felt heavy enough before I let myself cry. And when that sense of heaviness comes, I let myself think through the things that sadden me, the things I couldn’t accept, the illness I couldn’t seem to heal from despite many prayers.

I would cry until I fell asleep. And then I’d wake up in the morning ready to repeat the drill. 

Looking back, I’m thankful that God made me love books and writing. These were the things that kept me driven to live. These were the things that opened my eyes to bigger pictures: they told me that there’s so much more that I could do despite my condition, that maybe it’s okay that I look different, that being different means I could stand out.

Breaking through Shame

Refusing to talk about TMD gave it the power to control me, manipulate my beliefs, and limit the ways that I related to people and let people show up for me.

So when I was getting ready for university, I decided that I will no longer keep it a secret.  I was about to enter an institution that I prayed and studied hard for, and I decided that I couldn’t let TMD get in the way.

I prayed to God for an opportunity to open up to somebody. And He answered.

One morning, in one of my first classes with other freshmen from the same college I got into, the professor asked us to introduce ourselves. But she didn’t want the usual tell-your-name-and-where-you’re-from blah. She wanted us to say something unique about ourselves, something that probably doesn’t apply to other people in the room. 

My heartbeat quickened. My entire body felt cold, and slight shivers lingered on the tips of my fingers.

That was it, I knew. I prayed for an opportunity, and God handed it to me. I knew I had to take the chance.

I don’t remember what I said when my turn to speak came. In fact, I don’t think I spoke for more than three minutes. I immediately started crying the moment I mentioned TMD, and it was so hard to speak clearly. 

But even with the shaky voice, my tear-stained face, and the fear of being seen as peculiar, that morning was one of my biggest moments of breakthrough. I don’t have a way of knowing what my classmates thought of me at that time, but that’s not important. What really mattered to me is that I stood up for myself, that I let myself—especially the ugly part—be seen. 

That I gained friends from those who listened and accepted me as who I was was a bonus. It wasn’t my intention to win validation or acceptance, but God also blessed me with these. 

It wasn’t the end of the battle, of course, but that moment was and still is empowering.

Reclaiming my Identity

I wish I could say that I boldly and confidently muscled through college after that day of speaking about TMD. I didn’t.

On the contrary, there were many days when I feared I couldn’t finish my degree, a lot more days when I felt ugly and unlovable, weeks when I kept socializing to the minimum because I felt self-conscious when talking to people.

My TMD symptoms continued to grow worse. Just sitting in class was tiring, the casual chitchats stressed my jaws out, carrying a bag around campus—no matter how light—gave me body pain. 

Worse, I started harboring bitterness in this area of my life. I couldn’t reconcile the fact that God can heal me anytime and yet he doesn’t. I couldn’t understand why the Bible declares healing miracles and yet I don’t seem to have a share of those miracles.

To rub salt to my open wounds, I met people who pointed fingers at my lack of faith. I was told maybe I wasn’t praying hard enough, that I might be hiding an unconfessed sin, that my condition is a curse only real repentance could heal.

But I’ve prayed and pleaded and repented more than a thousand times. 

Looking back, I now see how immature it was of me to be affected by people who blamed my small faith for my lack of healing. I shouldn’t have let those people stain my view of God’s love towards me and how He also longs to make me whole. But back then, with my insecure and overly sensitive young self, I was deeply affected.

Eventually, I avoided praying about TMD. When I did pray, it was probably because I was on the brink of depression or at the peak of anger towards my lack of healing. Most of my prayers that mentioned TMD were hostile, confrontational, and centered on asking God why he doesn’t heal me instead of asking Him for healing.

That’s how bad TMD affected me: it easily took me into a hostile stance before God. It quickly answered back to all my declarations of faith and caused me wounds that took years to heal. 

But while God didn’t move in changing my external circumstances, He was changing me from the inside.

He met me in the low places where I lingered, unthreatened by my lashing out. He didn’t condemn my frustrations and anger; He met me where I was and carried me to places of greater joy, greater faith, and a higher calling. 

As with any spiritual journey, mine doesn’t always point upward. I have days of strength and of weakness—dusks when I enjoyed the view from the mountain and when I camped, bitter and lonely, in dark valleys. 

Without a spiritual foundation, I don’t think I could’ve made it out of college alive. In my tossings between hope and hopelessness, praying for healing and doubting if I’ll ever be healed, wanting to live and praying for death, God was kind to me.

He gave me this grace: a spiritual community that helped me move higher, extend grace to others and myself, wait and wait patiently even when it’s hard.

I had no one-time, big-time spiritual enlightenment. It was the small things: the short, quiet times with God; the once-a-week small group meetings; the planned and unplanned heart-to-heart sessions with friends, the decisions to show up in little ways.

I could keep thinking of TMD as an enemy, but that wasn’t building me up in any way. I realized that viewing TMD that way didn’t defeat my sickness; it defeated me. I had to relearn my identity and stop anchoring it on my weaknesses. 

TMD is part of my life, but it isn’t my life. It doesn’t call the shots. It’s not my master.

Living with TMD Now

Working after college was a whole new ballgame. But here’s one of the perks: I can finally afford to see a new TMJ specialist and start getting a series of new treatments.

Unfortunately, no treatment has worked really well for me. Yet. 

I still want to heal and do things without being restricted by chronic pain. But while my circumstances remain the same and I continue to seek options that could potentially work, I’d like to intentionally choose courage over crumbling, faith over fear, self-love over self-loathing.

I still experience low moments, of course. In fact, most of my symptoms are worse now than ever. But living with TMD for over 15 years—plus all the other losses I’ve experienced throughout my life—made chronic pain a little less scary.

I have no answer as to why God hasn’t healed me or if He ever will. But here’s one thing I’m sure of: healed or not, my worth, my purpose, and my future remain secure.  

Shifting my Source of Confidence

Aside from writing, psychology and teaching are two things that I’m passionate about. I don’t have a degree in these fields, but I’ve always been so interested in learning them.

In 2015, after over a year of working in a government agency, I decided to try applying for a teaching job in an afterschool learning center. Crazy enough, I got accepted.

I remember being elated and excited about the new adventure. But I was also dead scared. I was undergoing splint therapy (again) during that time, so getting a job where I’ll have to talk for most hours of the day wasn’t exactly ideal.

After my last duty in the government office, I walked to my apartment while listening to a worship song through my earphones. I talked to God as I listened: Did I do the right thing? Should I really pursue this? If I take this teaching job, I will be so tired. I will be in much more pain. I will have to kneel before You daily to get by.

And then it hit me: God likes that. He wants me to kneel before Him, with or without pain. He called me to a life of surrender, with or without illness.

Pursuing teaching was a leap of faith for me. It was an act of abandoning my reliance on my own strength and trusting that God can and will see me through.

From a purely earthy perspective, it was a very stupid choice. Not only was it going to get in the way of my therapy, but the pay was also significantly lower than what I used to earn. But for some reason, I was convinced that I needed to do it. So I took the leap. 

After six months in that afterschool center, I moved to another full-time teaching job in a private elementary school. I taught there for three years and produced two poetry books with my students, which we sold for the benefit of Filipino cancer patients. 

Yes, teaching was tiresome. Yes, I doubted my decision several times. Yes, I frequently arrived home unable to do anything else but lie down. Yes, there were days when my head hurt like crazy.

I took my teaching job one day at a time, and God didn’t fail me.

In 2019, I moved to my next calling: to write full-time.

Thriving in Truth

I don’t always have a positive outlook. I’m not always hopeful.

I wake up tired sometimes. Most nights, I go to bed unable to find a position that doesn’t hurt my neck or my back. Something always hurts—except when I’m deep in sleep.

Even if I’m just walking around, sitting still on a bus, or standing in line in a grocery store, TMD makes me incredibly tired.

And did I mention it’s not only TMD that I suffer from? I also have scoliosis, mild asthma, and a heart condition called mitral valve prolapse. 

I went through a really low point in my life last January 2019. I was on a public vehicle on my way to church when a sharp, almost electrifying pain shot through my left ear. I’ve never experienced that kind of pain before, so I didn’t know what to do. I kept pulling on my ear, hoping that the pain would stop. The pain lasted for about a minute and, after a few seconds, it hit again. I was so scared.

I headed straight to the nearest hospital to see an ENT doctor. While waiting for my name to be called, I kept praying that the problem was with my ear. 

Maybe I needed a good ear cleaning session? That could be it, right?  I’ll just have to pay for professional earwax removal, then I’ll be okay.

But that’s not what happened. Instead, I heard what I didn’t want to hear.

There was no problem with my ear. I didn’t need ear cleaning, but my TMJ needed serious intervention. The doctor recommended that I consider TMJ surgery—a procedure that’s irreversible yet offers no guarantee that my jaws will be okay.

I went home with a fresh sense of being chronically ill. I didn’t want to undergo surgery. And even if that were my only choice left, I don’t have enough savings to pay for the procedure and all the other costs that the recovery period would need.

What followed that night with the ENT doctor was three months of isolation. I felt incredibly low, my frustrations felt raw and new. I didn’t want to leave the house except when I really needed to. I didn’t know how to talk to God. I was torn between trusting and feeling offended that He let me go through what I was going through.

I observed my prayers change from “Please take my sickness away” to “Please take me away.” From “Help me sleep so I don’t feel pain” to “Please don’t wake me up.”

It was a dark season for me. And I didn’t know how it would end.

But it did end. 

What helped me the most was a Bible verse that I read and jotted down on my notebook a few days before the sudden doctor appointment happened:

What I tell you in the dark, say in the light….”  – Matthew 10:27, ESV

While there are many interpretations for this verse, what I personally felt God was telling me during that time was that I was going to enter a dark season and that He will speak to me there. But if I’d like to speak His words in the light, I needed to make it out of the dark. I needed to go through the season and then overcome it. And that’s exactly what happened.

Despite the difficulty of that season—days of feeling trapped and hopeless—I maintained my quiet moments with God. I remember saying, “My situation sucks, and I’m not sure what you’re doing or if you have any plans of helping me out. But you’re still God, so I’m still going to seek you even though I don’t feel like it. I’m finding it hard to trust, but I’ll keep showing up.” 

Every morning, despite my bitterness towards life, I read the Bible. I mostly read from Ecclesiastes and the Psalms because those books seemed like the easiest to chew on.

I kept at it. And I don’t know how, but I slowly regained my trust, my joy, my hope, my drive to keep going. When I chose to listen to the truths in the Bible over my own doubts and frustrations, I thrived. Never in my life have these words become even more true: 

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.” – 2 Corinthians 4:16, ESV 

As I continue to seek treatments that I’m hoping would help, what I’m sure of is that I’m not alone. I don’t know why God doesn’t grant me miraculous healing, I don’t know why effective and affordable interventions are so hard to come by, but I still look forward to what’s ahead.

As much as I yearn for complete healing, I realized that healing isn’t my highest good—God is the highest good. My 15-year-old pain isn’t my life’s biggest thing—only God is.  

I wish I could tell my story differently and end it with a grand manifestation of inward and outward healing. But while that’s not my story yet, I rejoice in the grace I’m given. I rejoice in the here and the now and the full restoration that awaits.

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