I was sitting in a waiting room, waiting for an appointment to get a new night guard for my teeth. The type of mouthguard I needed was similar to the ones that boxers or rugby players wear to protect their teeth. This type of dental guard, however, is custom made, in order to fit individual mouths comfortably. I had been aware of grinding and clenching my teeth whilst sleeping, for at least 15 years, and had recently been waking up in the middle of the night with my teeth clenched tightly together. It was as though my subconscious was intervening and was now warning me when my teeth were engaged in this habit.
I already owned a mouth guard which I wore on my bottom teeth, and which had been made over 10 years ago, when I lived in England. I had worn this guard on and off for many years. In the past, when I went to the dentist, the only question I was ever asked about the guard was whether or not I had one. Nobody ever asked me how old it was. It had been expensive to have made, and I never thought about getting another one. It was only recently after my consultation with the Maxillofacial doctor; who seemed confounded that I had been using the same guard for over 10 years without having it adjusted, checked or replaced, that I realized perhaps I should get a new one. Of course, our faces change with age, as do or jaws and teeth.
The relationship between teeth grinding and clenching, and problems with the temporomandibular jaw joint (TMJ) causing problems with the ear are well documented. Curious that this connection was never mentioned by any of the many ear specialists I had consulted with. Typical symptoms of a TMJ disorder include ‘hearing loss, an earache, tinnitus, a sense of ear fullness, and vertigo’. Hmm, I had experienced all of these and continued to do so with all except vertigo. I had even read stories of people who had suffered a hearing loss, and then after wearing a night guard for some months, their hearing had gradually returned. I was not hoping for this kind of miracle, but I did have some optimism that a new night guard could help reduce some of the pressure I was feeling in my ears and my head; this being the most difficult of my symptoms to tolerate.
The dentist surgery was in an old-style apartment block. The waiting room felt as though it was probably once someone’s living room, many years ago. The room was square and dark padded sofa chairs lined three of the walls. There were no windows, and the walls were a plain dismal-cream colour. Around the bottom of the walls was dark brown skirting. There was a dark coffee table, situated in the space made between the chairs, with Spanish magazines arranged on top, in three piles. It was simply decorated, with two large framed pictures, one on each chair-lined wall. In the far corner, situated up high, near the entrance was a small box TV playing a Spanish soap opera with subtitles and low volume. As well as the low rumble from the TV, jingly-sounding elevator-style music attempted to liven up the atmosphere. The surgery had looked so clean and white on the photos on the website. This definitely did not resemble the sterile and shiny images that had been advertised.
The receptionist called me to her office to speak with her. She had a confident, sociable and easy-going attitude. I stumbled my way through the general health questions and she corrected my Spanish a few times, each time smiling with friendliness. She was the kind of person who made me feel like she immediately liked me. Perhaps it was the child-like Spanish I was speaking to her. For this appointment, I hadn’t prepared any Spanish phrases or helpful vocabulary. I had become accustomed to meeting new specialists, doctors and receptionists, and the taking of basic details didn’t feel too scary anymore. I then went to sit back in the waiting room.
Shortly I was greeted by the guy with whom I had spoken on the phone, who had given me an appointment within 45 minutes of me phoning. He was younger than me, and spoke to me in a mixture of Spanish and American-sounding English, as he led me to the dentist’s room. When I entered, I was met by a small old man, who was wearing a medical face mask, dentist overalls, glasses with magnifying mirrors attached, and whose bald head was covered in age spots. He muffled a greeting through his mask, and I wondered what he looked like under the medical disguise. He resembled a little mole, as he shuffled calmly around the room. He asked me why I was there and whether I had had a ‘ferula’ before. Ferula is the Spanish word for mouth guard – this was my new medical Spanish word of the day. He asked me to perform some jaw movements as he felt around my head and under my jawline. He also examined my teeth. He mumbled constantly into his face mask, directing his speech towards his companion. I could only hear and understand a little of what he was saying. The younger dental technician spoke to me in his broken American English and explained that they would need to do an X-ray to make sure the night guard would fit properly, and then they would be able to do the moulds of my teeth. After that, the dentist left the room, and that was the last time I saw him during this appointment. The dental technician took me to a room to have the X-ray. Later he filled my mouth with pink putty to form the moulds, chatting happily at me whilst my mouth was unable to move. I would return the following week…