Thursday, December 3, 2009

Tooth and Consequences

About nine years ago, I had my first and, so far, only, root canal.  Of course, beforehand, I had to hear everyone's horror stories.  But I was pretty sure that, compared to my early experiences with dentistry, the procedure would be a walk in the park.  When I was a boy in rural Iowa, my old country dentist drilled without administering novocaine!  I was relieved that the root canal was anticlimactic.  As expected, the procedure went smoothly, and I had very little pain.  It took some trial and error to get what felt like a pretty good fit for the crown.  But eventually all seemed well.  The tooth occasionally felt a little odd, but not painful.

But earlier this year, I began to notice increasing pain in my jaw when I bit down on the tooth.  I tried to chew on the opposite side of my mouth, but whenever I accidentally bit down on the tooth, a stabbing, hot, agonizing pain would shoot up into my cheek, as if someone were jamming a red-hot ice pick up through my molar and into my eye socket--or as if my old country dentist were drilling my molar again.  The pain would last for a couple of hours.  I finally had to admit to myself that I needed to have the tooth examined.

My dentist x-rayed the tooth and saw what seemed to him to be a little bit of swelling between the root and the socket, so he referred me to a periodontist.  But the periodontist saw nothing unusual in the x-rays.  He said he could redo the root canal and it might relieve the pain--or it might not.  Back home, I decided I didn't want to undergo another root canal if there was little certainty of a good outcome.  I returned to my dentist and asked him to smooth down my crown to try to get a better fit.  He did, and I had some relief for a few weeks.  But then the pain came back.

I was stuck.  I was facing the prospect of having to live with increasingly excruciating pain, without any hope of an effective treatment.  Fortunately, or unfortunately, this was a very familiar situation.  A few years ago, I was diagnosed with chronic pelvic pain syndrome--constant untreatable pain in the hips and groin and low back.  Thrown back on my own resources, I found ways of working with the condition that eventually resulted in my being able once again to be fully active without pain.  I knew from personal experience that undiagnosable, untreatable chronic pain can be workable.  So I sat down and began to puzzle through this tooth pain.

I used my mindfulness training to try to avoid chewing on the affected side, and to stay with the pain when I did mistakenly bite down on the tooth.  As I sat with the pain, I tried to release any thoughts it spawned and to relax into the physical sensations.  I gradually came to see that part of the pain involved muscle tension in my jaw and face.  I tried to be mindful of this tension, even when I wasn't in pain.  I soon saw that this tension was the result of a mistaken response to something my Alexander Technique teacher had tried to teach me.

I've been seeing my Alexander Technique teacher for nearly two years now.  She's been helping me recognize and release places where I habitually hold tension in my body.  My pelvic pain condition has melted away, and my sense of well-being and ease has increased.  In the course of her lessons, she pointed out that I tense the muscles that make my lips thin.  I responded by trying to force my lips to purse out more than they had, instead of trying to relax my facial muscles.  This increased muscular tension in the face and jaw was what seemed to be associated with my tooth pain.

I massaged my jaw muscles and used the tools I'd learned from my Alexander Technique teacher to relax my face and jaw.  The result was miraculous!  The pain melted away, to the point where now, I can bite down on my molar and only occasionally feel a little, short-lived twinge.  I remembered reading something about tooth pain in Clair Davies's book, The Trigger Point Therapy Workbook.  I looked it up, and sure enough, Davies wrote that trigger points in the jaw muscles can cause sensitivity in the teeth.

I'm increasingly amazed at the interplay among my mind, body and emotions.  Incidents like this are like windows into the connections among these aspects of self.  I'd rather not have had to deal with chronic pain, but I have to admit that it's given me new insights and opened new possibilities of health and well-being.


KMG said...

Wow, good for you! I was having some jaw pain awhile back, and finally realized that it was due to the way my head was resting on my pillow at night. It was forcing my jaw out just a little bit. Awareness really does work miracles sometimes.

How long did it take for your pelvic pain to go away while working with the Alexander technique?

paulcook said...

Hi Karl, Good on you for returning to your Alexander thinking to solve your own problem. It's like learning to ride a bike eh? The basics are always there to fall back on. Hey, if you'd like to hear one of the original teachers, Walter Carrington talking on all manner of topics associated with Alexander technique, grab a free subscription to my website:
Best regards, Paul

Karl Boyken said...

Kate, that's a hard question to answer, because the pelvic pain condition will probably always be with me, as a pattern or tendency or habit. Also, other things I do, such as self-administered trigger point massage, have been of great help, so it's hard to separate out the contribution of my Alexander lessons. So, given all that, I'd say that after a couple of months of lessons, I could see the benefits.

Karl Boyken said...

Paul, thanks for the link to your Alexander blog!

I'd say it's like unlearning to ride a bike!