Thursday, June 10, 2010

Keywords: Sharp, piercing, excruciating ear pain

When I sit down to write in this blog, I generally expect the readers will be my friends and family, or maybe some folks suffering from severe boredom. I'm always delighted to find out that someone new stumbles upon the blog randomly, but when I sit down to write, usually I expect it will be seen by a modest audience of a few regular readers. Well, tonight's blog is a little different. Tonight I'm writing for new people who are searching for the following keywords:
ear pain
sharp, piercing pain in ear
icepick stabbing sensation
excruciating ear pain
worse pain I've ever felt in my life
OMG my ear hurts so bad I want to curl up in a ball and cry
Will someone please tell me what the hell is causing the worst pain I've ever experienced!?!

Some time ago, I was having the absolute worst pain I have ever felt before or since. I had no idea what was causing it, and doctors could find nothing wrong. I spent hours on the internet trying to self-diagnose and found hundreds of things it could have been, but I didn't find any helpful information until I had talked to four different doctors and knew exactly what to type into a google search: TMJ

I went through hell trying to find out what was causing my pain. It would be accurate to describe it as feeling like someone is driving an icepick into my eardrum. Any time I would smile, chew, or move my mouth or ears in any way, spontaneous profanities would erupt from my mouth because the pain was so bad. I was actually worried when it happened at work because the stabbing pains would be so sudden that I couldn't help my outbursts. Imagine if you were to accidentally smash your fingers with a hammer, or slam them in a car door. Those words that would come out of your mouth... those were coming from me every time I smiled, coughed, or turned my head around too quickly. It was hell. And a recurring, unpredictable hell at that.

After a few episodes, I went to my doctor and he couldn't find anything wrong. He gave me some ear drops for the pain and said my ears looked fine. There was no sign of infection or any trace of what was causing the pain. He recommended I come back mid-earache so he could look while I was experiencing the pain. Of course, this always happened on evenings or weekends. He recommended an ear, nose & throat doctor for me to see. I made an appointment and the specialist said the same thing. Nothing looks wrong with my ears, come back when I'm having the problem.

The next time I had an earache was around 7:00 on a weeknight so I went to a Minute Clinic that was open until 8:00. I was about to pass out from the pain, but I walked my swearing self over to the clinic and had her look in my ears. Nothing. There was no sign that anything was wrong. Other than the tears streaming from my eyes and me talking through clenched teeth to try not to aggravate the pain. She prescribed me a different brand of ear drops and told me to go back to the ENT when I was experiencing the pain so they could take a closer look.

The ENT had me get a full CT Scan of my sinuses so they could see if that gave any evidence of what was happening. Again, there appeared to be nothing abnormal in the results. This went on for months. Twice a week I would feel a sudden pain in my ear and would have to lie as still as possible. I would lay down on my right side (it was almost always my left side in pain, but sometimes both.) Eventually I would pass out and fall asleep and the pain would be gone when I woke up. Usually. Sometimes I still felt a dull pain the next day.

Finally I had an earache in the afternoon, abandoned my job and headed for the ENT. I screamed as he looked in my ears because any movement to that ear would cause stabbing, excruciating pain. Even when I stepped off the curb, the motion from hopping down from the curb prompt a stabbing pain. He looked into my ears, I screamed like a banshee, he put down his instruments and told me everything looked fine. He could find nothing that could be causing me any pain at all, let alone the kind of pain that caused a scream that rattled the windows of his office. It was that point when he referred me to an Oral Surgeon because I may have Temporomandibular Joint Disorder: TMJ (or TMD.) He explained that the pain may feel like it's in my ear canal, when really it's in my jaw at the joint. In the neighborhood, but not even close to being the same thing.

As soon as he told me what may be causing the pain (and taught me how to spell it) I knew that's what was happening. The first painful episodes began after I had some extensive dental work, and I could connect the worst episodes to other activities that could cause a strain on the jaw muscles. Doctors had been poking, prodding and violating my ears, but could never see the problem because it was below the surface. That also explained why smiling or laughing would make things worse. Any time the joint moved, the pain would flare up again. It suddenly all made sense.

I was referred to an Oral Surgeon who asked some basic questions and took some x-rays. He said there could be treatment for the joint, but it was a last-resort measure. He put me on a diet of only soft foods for one month. Really soft. Ridiculously soft. I lived on mashed potatoes and applesauce for 30 days, suppressed my yawns, and basically did everything I could to keep my joints relaxed so they could recover. I kept my mouth shut for thirty days, and I am happy to say - it worked!

It's been a year and now that I know the source of the pain, I take extra caution not to put a strain on my jaw. I have gone to the Dentist three times since then and each time I reminded them of the TMJ and they let me rest my jaw so it's not open at full hinge the whole time. I don't chew gum, I don't eat anything that involves excessive masticating, and if I start to feel some pain coming on in that area, I immediately grab the ibuprofen to try and keep the pain at bay. In the last year I have had a bit of pain in the joint, but nothing like what I had been experiencing. Thank heaven for that because that kind of pain is intolerable, especially when it's as unpredictable as it was.

Other than the ibuprofen, it didn't take any surgery or drugs, but only a change in behavior to keep the worst pain imaginable from coming back. That is the reason I am writing this blog. I am not exaggerating when I say that I scoured hundreds of web pages, desperately trying to learn what could possibly be causing my intense pain. I found a few medical message boards, some of them were four years old, but most of the people writing about the symptoms were folks like me who were looking for a diagnosis - and then responses by people offering dozens of possible causes. I apologize to the regular readers if you've made it through this entire entry and feel like you're in a nursing home listening to people ramble on and on about their ailments. I know it's not interesting, but it's important to me. I needed to put my experience out on the web, just for the possibility that someone with the same symptoms may read this during a desperate google search like I performed so many times. Self diagnosis is not always recommended, but in this case all it took for me was to eat soft foods and relax my jaw to stop the most excruciating pain of my life. If you stumbled upon this blog because you were experiencing the same symptoms I was, reach for the mashed potatoes and applesauce for a while. Give your joint a rest for 30 days and if you see a remarkable improvement, you may have just learned something it took several months, numerous doctors, and too many incorrect diagnoses to discover.