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Fighting jaw pain with custom orthotics

Texas A&M College of Dentistry's Center for Facial Pain and Sleep Medicine improves patient's jaw pain with custom-made oral orthotic.
Lucy Barnett

Lucy Barnett’s temporomandibular joint pain stretches back about as far as she can remember. She’s racked her brain to identify a root cause.

“I don’t know if my profession has anything to do with it or something that is innate, but I clench my teeth in my sleep,” says Barnett, a recently retired property crimes detective and 29-year veteran of the Dallas Police Department.

It’s just something she’s always done. To stave off jaw pain, her dentist built her appliances to wear at night. Barnett kept clenching—and breaking—every single one.

“One day I woke up and couldn’t open up my mouth even wide enough to get a fork in or a spoon to eat a bowl of cereal. My dentist flat told me at that point, ‘I can’t do anything for this. I don’t know what else to do, shy of sending you to an oral surgeon.’ I really didn’t even want to do that; I didn’t want to go the surgery route,” she says.

Instead, her dentist handed her a business card. On it was contact information for Steven D. Bender, DDS, director of the Center for Facial Pain and Sleep Medicine at the Texas A&M College of Dentistry. “This was all out of pocket, but I was to the point that I had to do something,” Barnett says. So she filled out a barrage of forms, which Bender studied so closely it was as if he had read every pen stroke. She underwent extensive X-rays of her head, neck and jaw.

It wasn’t long before Bender presented her with her first custom-made oral orthotic. These contraptions can range in price from $700 to $3,000.

“When I first got it, I thought, ‘I don’t understand how this is going to work,’” Barnett says. “It took the pressure off my jaw, and within 72 hours I noticed a difference. It wasn’t a miracle, it wasn’t instant, but everything started to calm down within about 72 hours.”

Even if Bender can’t prevent her from breaking her appliances, he can at least lengthen each one’s duration. In 10 years, he’s made her three. And when she comes in for her biannual appointments, they test — with, of all things, carbon paper — where she’s applying the most bite force. They then make the necessary adjustments to Barnett’s appliance and send her on her way.

“It’s made a huge difference,” Barnett says of the care she receives at the pain and sleep center. “The quality of life in general is greatly enhanced.”

Eating is no longer hindered, and another bonus: Headaches are kept at bay. Barnett’s appliance goes wherever she does.

“I take it on vacation. I’ve taken some work trips and, when I fly, it goes with me; it doesn’t go in my checked luggage. It’s that important.”

This article originally appeared in Dentistry Insider.

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