You’ve Been Told You May Need Surgery…. Now What???

TMJ Surgery? Now What?

I remember the doctor appointment like it was yesterday… I was sitting in the dental chair with my legs swung over to the side, facing my surgeon. He had “that look” on his face – you might know the one….a mixture of concern and, “I don’t really want to tell you this, but…”

It was about a year after my last surgery, a left arthroscopy that we had tried to see if it could give my joint some relief and clear out some of the adhesions that prevented me from opening my mouth past 8mm. It hadn’t worked, and my opening was still tiny. And despite our best intentions, my pain was still at an all time high.

He finally came out with it, and said, “You know, it might be time for us to pursue a total joint replacement.”

My heart sunk into my stomach. Logically, I knew that was the next step, but emotionally I just wasn’t ready yet. This meant opening up a whole list of questions I didn’t know the answer to… going into an unknown territory as soon as I felt I had finally mastered everything for the other surgeries. This meant dealing with the uncertainty and fear of making yet another decision I just didn’t feel ready to make.

I left the office that day thinking…. NOW WHAT??

That conversation begun the year long journey of finding the answers to my long list of questions. A year long journey of becoming an expert on a surgery I said I would “never” consider. I was scared and disappointed but determined.

While I can’t prevent your heart sinking into your stomach when you hear you might need surgery, the next best thing I CAN do is help you prepare – both emotionally and physically.

So here’s what you can do after you think…”NOW WHAT?”

1. Take a deep breath and FEEL your feelings.

Acknowledge how you feel – are you scared? let down? angry? confused? It was impossible for me to start thinking about a surgery, preparing, or making logical decisions until I really acknowledged my feelings. Am I feeling scared? Why? Am I feeling disappointed? Sad? I tried to give myself permission to cry, feel bad, and do whatever I needed to so that I could even start to move on to action.

Surgery is stressful and emotional, and that is okay (and NORMAL). By attending to how we feel, we give ourselves the freedom to move forward. If you’re always pushing away or suppressing your feelings, studies show that you’ll actually end up thinking those very thoughts MORE than if you just dealt with them in the first place.

2. Get a notebook and start writing.

Write down your fears, the best case scenario, the worst case scenario, your If you’re anything like me, you’ll have lots of questions. Write them down. Ask your surgeon. Ask the hospital. Ask me.

3. Give yourself time between appointments and decisions

It’s important to allow yourself the time to think, gather information, and ask questions. Our brains are miraculous – if you allow your brain time to mull over your questions, the answers will come. We can’t make decisions that we feel good about later if we’re hurried and not able to consider all aspects of what is happening.

4. Look at your pre-surgery time like an athlete preparing for a big game or a musician preparing for a big gig.

The most successful athletes and musicians have plans, schedules, and rituals that they commit to when preparing for a big event. Your body and brain will react better to the stress of surgery if you have prepared beforehand and know what to expect.

In fact, all of these steps can lead to better outcomes after surgery. A study in the American Journal of Public Health reviewed 34 studies and demonstrated that patients who were given information or emotional support fared better than patients who received care without this support. Emotional support even reduced the length of their hospital stays!

As they wheeled me into the surgery suite for my total joint replacement, I felt confident that I had prepared myself emotionally and physically to the best of my ability.

Fast forward five years, and I was sitting in that same dental chair, with my legs swung around the side, looking at the same surgeon. Except this time, it was a social visit. After I told him my story and recounted everything that happened over the past five years of my life, he just smiled and said, “Ok Stacy, NOW WHAT???”

….and so, I told him about all of you.

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