Too-Tight Jaws

Jaws, TMJIt all begins with a plaintive complaint.

I don’t know who to send it to – my long-winded grievance – so I find the website of the hospital where my mom is recovering from unexpected surgery. On the long 9-hour ride back home from visiting her, I locate a blank “your concerns” form.

With one succinct sentence (“I am unhappy with the lack of support and communication during my mom’s stay”), the surprise transpires.

In less than 24 hours, I receive a phone call and an e-mail from “Dee,” the assistant of the hospital’s CEO/President!

We miss each other’s calls for the next two hours, so I e-mail a detailed listing of my concerns.

A day later, Dee e-mails me that she’s shared my grievances with other hospital personnel, and that she’ll call me soon.

I wait for three days.

As expected, no follow through, and I’m caustically disappointed.conversation, dialogue

But then, my cell rings.

“Pamela? This is Dee, from the hospital.”

“Oh!” I exclaim.

“I’m so sorry! I have TMJ and the pain sent me to the ER three days ago. I suffered a migraine and then horrible toothaches. I had to stay in bed on pain meds,” she explains.

“Do you clench your teeth?” I ask.

“YES! How did you know? I wear a retainer at night. The dental specialist I saw today said it’s all wrong for me. He wants me to buy a new $1200 device. I don’t know what to do!”

“Press your tongue up,” I advise.


“I never have teeth problems,” I continue. “But as my mom’s illness increased, I thought all of my teeth were falling apart. I found a new dentist, who discovered that my teeth pain is caused by clenching.”

I pause, not believing I’m opening up to this stranger – the CEO’s assistant– about my clenching problems. If it wasn’t so pathetic, it would be ridiculously funny.

Dee interjects, asking breathlessly, “And what did she suggest?”

“She said that physical therapists recommend just pushing the tongue on the roof of your mouth. When you do that, you can’t clench.”

A moment of silence ensues until Dee exclaims: “Oh, whoa, that does work.”

hosptital, hospital stayThen, Dee reviews my e-mail for the next 15 minutes, thanking me for the accounting of what went wrong at the hospital, and telling me that the hospital Board would meet in two days to discuss my e-mail and to suggest changes.

“I’ll contact you with the recommendations the Board makes. We are so thankful that you took the time to connect with us and to help us improve,” she says.


Well, okay.

“You’re making a difference, being an advocate for your mom and for people with dementia,” she adds.

Damn, now I’m getting teary-eyed.

“And on a personal note, I never knew my tongue was such a strong muscle. I’m not clenching now – thanks so much! You have just saved me $1200.”

We both end the call smiling (yes, I can hear her smile). A clenching conversation becomes…helpful in many ways.

I think there’s a lesson here.

jaw, TMJ, dialogue

Photo by Gutsy Tuason.

If nothing else, I hear the release of many tight jaws.

96 thoughts on “Too-Tight Jaws

    • Well, maybe I wouldn’t suggest you push your tongue to the roof of your mouth while you’re explaining yourself to someone. Actually, I was just putting tongue to cheek there. 🙂

  1. A very moving tale as it brings out the very human angle of suffering that we all share – whether for a loved one or in a physical way. By the way, I also clench, refuse to wear a retainer but sometimes get bad headaches and jaw pain. The tongue exercise sounds like a good idea. And I dope the hospital is able to improve things in time for your Mom to benefit!

    • It takes a week or two, but the more you use the ‘tongue/roof’ exercise, the more natural it becomes, and headaches go away! And yes, I think when we share tales of physical woes, we become more empathetic to each other, and somehow closer immediately.

  2. I’m a clencher too, Pam. I also grind my teeth at night. Years ago, I had an expensive night guard, made by my dentist. When I gnawed through it, I purchased a $1.00 athletic mouth piece from Walmart. It’s been a lifesaver. Hugs to your sweet mother.

    • Several people have mentioned they receive the best relief from an inexpensive athletic mouth piece. Who knew?? I had been so embarrassed to learn that I was clenching my teeth – and yet, dozens of readers have admitted to the same. There is less mortification when knowing so many of us have the same ‘affliction.’ :-0

  3. Wow, wow, wow, Pam! Great post!
    I think you demonstrate that sometimes complaining works (I’m sure you did it respectfully), and sometimes there are people who are open to hearing suggestions and improving conditions. I love this story of how you and Dee connected. Now, I suppose you will have to wait to see if the hospital follows through, but still just the fact that they responded in such a fashion must have made you feel good.
    Wishing you and your mom all the best!
    (I’ve never had a problem with clenching my teeth, but if it does happen, now I know what to do!)

    • I’ve never been a ‘squeaky wheel’ and can be rather quiet. But with an elderly parent who can’t advocate for herself, well, I’m learning to speak up. But yes, I definitely don’t agree with complaining loudly or aggressively. And in this instance, I got first-hand proof that by listening first, then communicating (instead of reacting before talking), a lot more can get accomplished.
      Hope you never clench – but just in case, practice with your tongue up on your roof once in a while. 🙂

    • It’s a shame that first we’re shocked to hear back AT ALL when we try to reach out about a problem. But then, to actually have a ‘real’ person respond and LISTEN. So much more gets accomplished that way. I think it helps so much when we treat each other as human beings, from both sides of the table. Thanks so much for reading and commenting. ❤

  4. So wonderful! I find how I approach a conversation makes all the difference in the outcome. If you’d been ready to do battle by the time she called, the loveliness of mutual connection would have been almost impossible. But instead, both of you started with your human side and that made such a difference. I love this! Starting the year off with an advocacy mindset, whether for a loved one, or for the assistant on the other end of the line, could set the tone for 2017.

    • You described it perfectly. Better that I had to send out a ‘form’ first to begin my complaint, calm down a little, and then when the conversation began, speak softly, respectfully, and meaningfully. Voila. My voice is heard, and empathy and kindness win. Many many thanks for your comments, and for stopping by and reading my post.

  5. This is great!

    I was in hospital for breast cancer surgery ten years ago. Afterwards I wrote to the hospital to commend the nurses but my main grievance was the quality ( or lack thereof) of the food. The ONLY fresh item was a banana…That’s it! I never got a response and later found out that most hospitals in the US have contracts with the same food providers as those that provide for prisons. Oh what a surprise!

    Great story, nicely told and great jaw de clenching tip 🙂 I do that too…


    • So much to respond to here. First I’m so glad that you recovered from breast cancer, despite the food!! As shocked as I am to learn about the provider of said food, I’m not surprised. Second, in my long detailed e-mail to the C.E.O. of the hospital and her assistant, I included a long paragraph praising the compassion, warmth, hard work, and dedication of the nursing staff. Those people are amazing in that profession, and they treated my mom with dignity, humor, and kindness.

  6. Complaining about the care you Mom received is the right thing to do. Years ago I had to do the same regarding the treatment, or lack thereof, my husband was receiving in the hospital. Because he was still in-patient, I was heard and saw an immediate change. I hope your Mom is doing better…and that you’re keeping your tongue in place. 🙂

    • Some people are afraid to speak up to doctors/hospitals/those-in-charge, but really, it doesn’t make us nasty to do so, as long as we speak up respectfully and kindly. So glad it worked for you and your husband. I believe my own complaints will help others in the future – I certainly hope so.

  7. Your blog is the highlight of my Friday. Smiling at your hospital frustrations having just experienced a week in Marin General as an advocate for mother in law before Christmas. I had no sage advice to share; I’ll try to press not wag next time.

    • You’re so wrong, Jeanette – you have lots of sage advice, and I value whatever you can share. In the meantime, I’m laughing at your clever words about pressing your tongue instead of wagging it. 🙂 Hope your mom-in-law is okay. xo

  8. I’m impressed that the hospital returned your call. Making a connection with Dee really gave you credibility and she listened. You had valid points. I’m so glad you spoke up. Everyone needs an advocate when they are in a hospital. I hope they take you seriously and institute change. I ended up with a brain injury following an elective surgery. You need to have someone advocate for you when you can’t. I had to be the advocate for my mother when she was in a nursing facility at the end of her life and for my father before a surgery because departments weren’t communicating. Things happen. Beautiful story. Thanks for sharing. Your mother is so fortunate.

    • Wow Patricia, thank you for your support regarding advocacy, and sharing all that you’ve been through. The scary/sad thing is that my mom doesn’t live close by, so my brother and I can’t always be RIGHT THERE to advocate. However, I believe that building relationships with caregivers and others who are near by can lead to much better treatment, kindness, and understanding. I definitely find that the most difficult thing, which leads to mistakes, is the lack of communication between departments, just as you mention.

  9. Well done, Pam. Hope your mom is doing better now.

    Your tongue tip is a great idea to guard against clenching and grinding during the day . . . I wonder if, over time, it would retrain the brain & prevent clenching and grinding at night?

  10. This post whispers (screams?) empathy all the way through. And something about “walking a mile in another’s moccasins” drifted through my mind as well.

    Your commenters are certainly on track with extrapolating lessons learned, so I will add only: If I needed a night guard, I would have picked one up from Wal-Mart when I shopped there this morning. 🙂

    You always deliver in the best packages, Pamela!

    • Yes, many wise people have added their ‘2 cents’ to this post and relayed their purchase of an inexpensive sports mouth guard to help them during the night. I love how we all help each other out. 🙂 And that’s the point of kind communication, even to those who at first aren’t willing to listen. With a little bit of empathy – well, as you say, then we all walk in each other’s shoes/boots/moccasins.” ❤

  11. I appreciate how you have weaved so many emotions into this post yet keeping the humorous tone alive! Wonderfully articulated Pam! Thanks for highlighting how kindness leaps out of common ailments. Stay blessed!

    • I never thought I’d be one to ‘clench,’ and yet, sometimes we’re more stressed than we realize. Talking about it, pressing the tongue up, and adding a bit of humor too — well, that all adds up to relaxation and a whole lot more communication. ❤

  12. It would have been easy to just complain to everyone about the lack of support, impersonal hospital care, they ignore old people, etc. and not even filled out the hospital form. Then they would have never had a chance to help.

    • Truthfully, I didn’t expect a response from filling out the form, Paula, but if I’d just shrugged my shoulders and didn’t bother to do anything, I’d just get more angry. Connecting with someone made a huge difference, all the way around. Thanks for commenting.

  13. Wonder how many readers tried this trick out while reading! I know I did! Good for you to take the time to voice your concerns. I think most businesses want to know where they’re screwing up because they will try their best to make corrections. And it goes both ways. If a business loses a client, shouldn’t they reach out to find out what happened and what changes they could make? It’s never a one-size-fits-all solution, of course, because what doesn’t work for one patient’s family (or one client) might work for another, but it’s important to simply know where you might be rubbing someone the wrong way!

    • Even though it seems easier to just not say anything to a big company (like a hospital), a corporation is still full of people. And most of those people WILL listen if approached in a kind manner. And yes, they should definitely want to improve for their clients’/patients’ sake. My mom was shuttled from room to room, (and no one told her family where she was in the hospital), so it took us a long time to find her. AND, she was unable to understand what was going on. I think more training of the hospital staff will help tremendously.

  14. A great story, Pam. It shows that everyone has issues and that open communication always works. Good luck with your complaints. Let us know what happens. BTW thanks for the clenching tip.

    • When I posted this I could just imagine readers pushing their tongues against the roof of their mouths. We are all so connected in so many ways, from learning better ways to communicate to learning to unclench. 🙂

    • I’m much more impressed with this hospital than I was at first, just because of their willingness to listen and make changes. Hoping it makes a difference. And I sincerely hope Dee’s toothaches are improved!

  15. Thank you for sharing this post. Speaking up for ourselves, and for the ones that we love, is the right thing to do…even though it is not always easy, or convenient. Sending positive vibes to you and your Mom.

      • Thanks for the kind words. Revamping the look on my blog was a surprisingly enjoyable task!
        We love living on Vancouver Island and greatly enjoy being surrounded by beaches and forests. (:

    • You are a much more patient and hopeful person than I am. I was pretty skeptical that anyone would actually get back to me, and I’m so glad I just listened to Dee and realized we’re all just ‘people’ trying to listen, understand, and be heard. xo

  16. I’m so glad you gave the hospital the “what for.” Hopefully “they” will profit from their mistakes or ill treatment of your mom. I’m so sorry that she was not treated well. I can identify with that. I’m not happy with the care home where my sis lives. I’ve complained only a tad and the director of nurses became defensive. My complaints only made things worse with one red headed LVN. She was a BITCH. But most likely I’ll move my sis after Medicaid kicks in.

    The things we learn when a family member is involved. It is mind boggling and these things happen all the time. Everywhere.

    • I think watching the response of an institution/company after you’ve made a point of asking for a change or help is a way to figure out if you’ve been heard, and if you should ‘stay’ with that place. The compassionate response from Dee gives me hope that changes will be made. My mom was never ill-treated, but her dementia and confusion were not taken into account in her treatment at first. For the most part, I’ve been so impressed with the caregivers who take care of the elderly and people with memory challenges at the place where she’s recovering from surgery. Good luck with your sister and her care. ❤

      • The care place where my sis lives has a certain attitude and it is mostly the folks that are in the “upper chambers.” The turn over of some of the nursing assistants and some of the LVNs has astonished me. That tells me that something is amiss. I looked the center up on the Internet and it had a “I” rating for nursing staff. ( I should have done my research but the place had physical therapy and was the only one at the time available for PT) I want to move her to a place that has at least “3” for its rating. All I can do is watch carefully until Medicaid is approved. I can’t say she has been treated badly but there have been instances of neglect and oversight and that does not fly with me. Thank you for the good post and your additional input. 🙂

  17. I am sorry about your Mum not receiving the level of care she needs, and about you not receiving the support you need. Thank you for being an advocate for your mum and for others with dementia. What a cruel disease. It robs us of so much. Who would have thought a board’s special meeting would result. I look forward to hearing what transpires. Go girl! Thanks also for the tongue advice. I had to try it, of course!

    • Thanks for giving the ‘tongue trick’ a go, Norah. Even if we don’t clench regularly, every once in a while, in a stressful situation, sticking that tongue up at the roof of our mouth does wonders. 🙂 I think Dee may be using that trick when she goes to that hospital Board meeting…!

  18. I think a politely worded, but firm complaint can often work wonders! I’m glad that the hospital’s personnel listened to you and took your concerns seriously. And as a fellow teeth clencher (who has to wear a nasty device at night), I can tell you that I’m now sitting here with my tongue firmly planted on the roof of my mouth!

    • I never wanted to talk about my teeth clenching because I was embarrassed, but look at how many of us need to push our tongues against the roof of our mouths! Hope this little trick works for you. I think it’s working for a Dee already ! 👌

  19. I have heard people say that they never share personal information, but you never know, a complete stranger may have some good information or good suggestions! I know I’ve received some. And what about meeting and gaining a really good friend! I know I have! You shared good information with a complete stranger; I hope she takes your advice. And just maybe she will remember you and do what’s right to correct the situation you pointed out. Good luck and best wishes to your mom!


    • The weird thing, and the good thing Sharon, is that Dee began her entire telephone conversation with me talking about her TMJ and all relating problems. Her openness just made me decide I needed to open up with her too, to help her feel better! And that’s when we began to talk and listen to each other like women, not like good guy and bad guy. I think it made a difference. Thanks so much for dropping by here and commenting! XO

  20. What a neat story. People helping people! Sometimes that’s all it takes.

    I can relate to the jaw-clenching and teeth grinding. I have suffered from migraines all my life—it’s hereditary, but also a byproduct of my nighttime habits. I started wearing a night guard a few years ago after I broke a filling in my sleep (which I assumed was a tooth). My dentist educated me on the teeth grinding situation and I was floored.

    Neck tightness is another trigger for me. When I feel a migraine coming on, I massage my neck and jaw. Guess I need to press my tongue to the roof of my mouth…that’s a cue I’ve used teaching yoga before, HELLO!

    • I was just going to ask if yoga helps with the migraines and clenching, Britt. My yoga teacher is constantly reminding us to LET GO of the jaw. 🙂 Also, do you do ‘the lion’ – the yogic practice of opening the mouth wide, roaring, with tongue out and eyes protruded? Quite ugly, but quite effective in releasing the jaw. Sometimes I do it when stopped in traffic. Whoa – the looks I get from other drivers!! Ha ha – they ‘steer clear’ of me.

  21. What a wonderful example of the win win of compassionate communication. Being kind and compassionate doesn’t mean we only say the ‘nice’ things. Complaints/feedback are/is essential to growth and integrity…and it can be delivered with respect and kindness, just as you’ve demonstrated. I have great admiration for the way you handled this, because the power of the emotions stirred up when a loved one is not being taken care of in the way they deserve can easily take us over. I’ll remember this post when I feel anger and frustration coming up in me, and try to remember there’s a human story on the other side too. Made me think of the Stephen Covey book, ‘Seven Habits…’ The fifth is ‘seek first to understand, then to be understood.’ Much love and abundant blessings to you and your Mum. Hugs, Harula xxx

    • You’re so right, Harula. Coming from an emotional worried/angry space, if I’d talked to someone in charge immediately, the conversation might not have gone as well. It helped that I had a day after sending out that form, and it also helped that Dee began the conversation all about her jaw. Weird that she opened up to me so quickly and honestly, but it certainly helped us understand, relate, and listen to each other. Yes, ‘putting ourselves in each other’s shoes’ does wonders for working out problems. Huge hug to you, my friend.

  22. Coming a bit late to the party here, Pam, but wanted to add my kudos to a well written, delightful post. I’ve been doing another tongue exercise: hold the tip in your teeth and swallow. Strengthens certain muscles needed in swallowing. I’m intrigued that your dentist says we can learn to do his tongue exercise while we sleep. So much to learn from others. Great way to connect. Thanks.

    • Many thanks for your own tip, Janet. I’m practicing that one now, too. I think we can teach ourselves a lot in our sleep, and guide ourselves right before we nod off. I guide myself into certain dreams that way too. So many wonderful mysteries in our world! ❤

  23. This reminds me that everyone we have the good fortune to cross paths with in life is there for a reason. Whether positive, negative, or neutral, there is always something to learn and an experience to embrace that helps us grow as human beings.

    It also reminds me that when we take the time and conscious effort to alleviate tension in our bodies (both physical and mental), we tend to see and experience life with much more clarity. Thanks for sharing, Pam. I always find a beautiful message hidden just beneath the surface of your words 😉

    • Your words also remind me why I shouldn’t be a hermit or a monk (even though there are times I think that’s what I’d like!) If we don’t interact with others, we don’t learn the lessons they can teach us. And if we’re in a little hole or cave, we can’t teach our own lessons, even if we didn’t realize someone was waiting to learn from us.
      Also, I wish everyone had the opportunity to practice yoga and meditation, to alleviate that tension you mention, and see the world (and others) with more compassion and insight. Two things you have plenty of! Thanks always for your wonderful insights here.

  24. I love love love love love love love this story!!! How we can be surprised and shocked by the humanity that can exist in a situation like this. I have been a little fumin’ about a certain company that seemingly provided false advertising. It’s a good reminder not to be fussin’ about the folks who work for that company. Perhaps the four people calling trying to con our little school could be new best friends with whom I have a phone conversation regularly! Ha ha, great bloggin’.

    • Strangers (and even seemingly enemies) can become the strangest, best of friends when the channels are opened. Here’s to keeping our channels of understanding and compassion WIDE OPEN – I know yours always are!!!
      And yes, thanks, my mom is recovering, slowly, but she’s in a much better place than she was two weeks ago.

  25. Great story Pam. It sounds like you and I are similar when it comes to speaking with assistants in business. I always seem to make friends with them by the end of our conversations, lol. I’m especially good at getting on with doctor’s secretaries, it does come in handy. And I too am a night clencher with a nightguard I don’t enjoy wearing, so I’m going to try the tip here from a blogger about that cheap athletic mouthguard. The tongue on the roof is good for day, but night time and sleeping, we can’t control our grinding. 🙂

    • I also got e-mails from friends who read this post (but don’t know how to comment on Word Press) about how they’ve bought a cheapo sports mouth guard, which works great for them at night. Hope it works for you!
      I know that I’ve been on the other side of that ‘table’ (working for non-profit organizations), when irate clients come storming in (or calling), acting as if I’m an automaton, and not a real person. Once I relate to them and let them know I’m a PERSON, they calm down and talk sensibly. So, when I’m on the other side of the table now, so to speak, like you, I first acknowledge the ‘person’ before speaking of the problem. Works wonders, doesn’t it?

      • Exactly! Everyone just wants to be acknowledged. Maybe I get to the bottom faster sometimes because when they say, ‘Hi, I’m so and so, how can I help you today?’ I always start my sentence with a ~smile and say ‘Hi, so and so, I wonder if you could help me today? It’s just easier to get bees with honey, no matter how annoyed we may be at the situation we’re calling about, coming off as angry or almighty is always going to create a defense 🙂

  26. It really does help headaches (easier than trying to train your tongue to place itself along upper and lower teeth which also works.)
    Funny – if you think about it, the barter system is still around, you traded compassion and info. in hope of a little attention about an issue and consideration. Nice to know the human touch still works – even in giant impersonal systems. Thanks for the smile
    (and yes, yoga helps!)

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