Becky's Airway Story
My Tiny Airway
Posted on 2/10/2019 by Foundation for Airway Health
I had lost hope of living life without pain. My awareness that I had an airway problem started in the office of a heart specialist six years ago. I told him I could fall asleep at any time during the day. A sleep study revealed that I test in the highest range for the number of times per minute a person stops breathing while sleeping. Because of this, I never experienced deep sleep, so I never had dreams. I got a CPAP machine, and I slept much better and started having dreams nightly. I felt more rested on awakening. But the story doesn't end there.
Two years ago, I awoke at night with all my teeth and gums really aching. I had pain in my right ear and up the side of my head that was so bad I wondered if I had a brain tumor. When a dentist was putting a filling in an upper tooth, he kept telling me to open my mouth wider. But when I tried to do so, my whole body started trembling. I knew something was terribly wrong, but I didn't know who to go to for help. I was living in Oklahoma at the time. A circular x-ray at my dentist's office showed my right jaw joint had collapsed, but I didn't understand why. I went to a TMJ specialist and he made me a mouth appliance that I wore at night. That seemed to help to relieve my pain at least for a while. It helped to hold my lower jaw forward so my tongue could not fall back into my airway and block my breathing as I slept.
Shortly thereafter, I moved to Pennsylvania. My new dentist, Dr. T., used Heart Rate Variability to find the proper position for my lower jaw based on my personal physiology. I didn't have the vocabulary at the time, but my right mandibular condyle was severely flattened with spurring anteriorly. In layman's terms, this means my jaw joint was not in good health. It was termed 'advanced degenerative joint disease', suggestive of a displaced and degenerative disc. That I could understand. It meant I had episodes of severe shooting pain, particularly while eating. Salads and steaks were out - too much chewing and pressure on my jaw joint. One time I bit into a hot dog on one slice of bread. I had severe pain shooting out the side and off the top of my head; it didn't stop for over an hour. I lived in terror of the next pain episode.
Dr. T. said he would attempt to slow the progress of the degeneration of my jaw by having a mouth appliance made for me to wear 24 hours a day except when eating. It would protect my jaw joint and keep my airway open. But I was wired for pain. So when the office staff said I would feel much better once I got the mouth appliance, I went into a skeptical 'wait-and-see' attitude until I started wearing it. The possibility of freeing myself from pain was almost too good to be true.
Let me give you more background about my airway. When I had exploratory surgery for growths around my female organs, the friend who accompanied me said the anesthesiologist ran out to her in a panic with blood splattered on him. He frantically said they had stopped my natural breathing, but could not find the hole to intubate me. That means putting a flexible tube into my airway to help me breathe during anesthesia. He said at one point, they caught the intubation tube on my vocal cords and almost ripped them out trying to get the tube out. I had a fever and severe infection in my throat after the operation and had to take antibiotics to recover.
The same thing happened again when I went in for gall bladder surgery at the same hospital. The young surgeon who performed my operation told me that he stood near as the anesthesiologist again panicked while attempting to intubate me. Later he told me he was standing by to do a tracheotomy to save my life in case they couldn't intubate me.
When Dr. T. did my last medical image called a 'cone beam', he said that they found my intubation hole in the normal place, but it was very small. My airway measured about one third of normal, which helped me understand why at times I feel like I have trouble breathing.
Having such a narrow airway creates all kinds of complications in one's life. Because of my small airway, he told me to keep using both my mouth appliance and CPAP at night. The daytime appliance holds space open between my upper and lower teeth. It relieves the pressure on my jaw joint and helps keep my unusually small airway open.
The office staff were right! Since wearing it, I have had no severe episodes of pain. I had to learn to relax and not fear pain. If you haven't experienced pain like this, it may be hard to imagine, but the benefits to me were as much emotional as they were physical.
I did have to change some habits. Dr. T. recommended me staying away from biting into things that would pull on the jaw joint, such as sandwiches, pizza, and bagels. If I do eat pizza, I cut it up into small bites. Also, he recommended going for softer foods like pudding and apple sauce that don't need as much chewing.
When I had lost all hope of living a pain-free life, I learned that there are specialists out there who know their business and who care about restoring me to a quality life. My tiny airway was at the center of everything else: the pain, the joint degeneration, my intubation crises, and the consequences of all the anxiety I experienced because I couldn't breathe easily. I'm grateful I got to tell my story for the Foundation for Airway Health website because sometimes it's hard to believe this all happened. It did. And I hope sharing my path will help you find yours.