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The Cost Of Living With Chronic Pain

One day, seemingly out of nowhere, the left side of my jaw began to cause me dull, aching pain. I wasn’t too worried because I’d had jaw pain before. Every once in a while, I would bite down on a piece of food “the wrong way” and have pain for about a week. It would subside after a week or so, and I wouldn’t think anything of it. But this time around, the pain came back and never completely went away. Although I am able to go to work and function as usual, this nagging pain that radiates from my left jaw constantly comes and goes. There isn’t a rhyme or reason behind it. The pain shows up when it wants to, leaving me at its whims. It affects my mood, what I can eat, my ability to hold a conversation, and so many more mundane things that we take for granted. I decided enough was enough. I had to do something about this.

As it turns out, I have a temporomandibular disorder, or as it’s more commonly known, TMJ. This condition affects the function of the jaw joint and can be caused by a number of things, from grinding your teeth to arthritis. In addition to the physical and emotional distress I am experiencing, I’m also worried about the cost. I have a shitty health care plan. None of my medical costs are covered until I meet my almost $3,000 deductible. So going into this, I knew I’d be taking a major financial hit if I wanted to be treated by a doctor. Feeling underwhelmed and pessimistic, I jumped in to get to the bottom of this. Here are the costs I’ve so far endured, as well as the ones I’ve considered enduring, because of my chronic pain.

Dentist-prescribed night guard: $550

I made an appointment with a local dentist for a cleaning and decided to ask her about what I could do about the near-constant pain I was experiencing. I sat down in her chair and almost immediately started crying, mostly out of frustration. Nothing I was doing for myself relieved the pain entirely. She asked me some questions, and recommended a custom night guard, as she insisted I was grinding my teeth at night. At that point, I was willing to try anything. Unfortunately, neither my medical nor dental insurance covered the mouth guard, so I had to pay out of pocket, which meant dipping into my savings account. I went out on a limb and trusted her. Unfortunately, after two nights of wearing my custom-fitted night guard, it made my pain worse. I don’t know what I was more upset over — the fact that the mouth guard didn’t work, or that I dropped $550 on something that was worthless to me.

TMJ specialist consultation: $175

Potential cost of tests, CT scan, MRI: $2,000

After going back to my dentist to complain about the night guard, she referred me to a dentist who specializes in TMJ issues. Again, I was willing to do anything to make the pain go away, so I coughed up the $175 consultation fee for an examination. Although I went in with my guard up, the dentist seemed fairly knowledgeable and explained to me that TMJ disorders were an orthopedic problem rather than a stress-related problem. He wanted to treat my jaw as if it were my knee or shoulder joint. After some in-office evaluation, he hit me with the cost: $2,000 for scans and an extensive inspection of my jaw. I felt the tears slowly creep down my face. This was, yet again, not covered by medical or dental insurance, and would have to come straight out of pocket. Obviously, I was repulsed by the idea of forking over $2,000 of my hard-earned money for tests I may or may not need, and I still am. That being said, I haven’t had the tests done yet and I’m not sure if I will. I may even get a second opinion depending on how my jaw feels in the next couple of months.

Self-mold night guard: $40

After the nightmare of spending hundreds of dollars on a night guard I couldn’t use, I resorted to a self-mold night guard purchased on Amazon. It had pretty good reviews, and I figured I wouldn’t lose too much money on it if it didn’t work.

It was incredibly difficult to mold, and no matter how many times I remolded it, it always felt too tight on my front teeth. After a couple days of trial and error, I decided to just wear it and see how it worked. When I woke up the next day, my teeth were sore from the fit, and it didn’t do anything to help my jaw. In fact, I woke up with pain.

Supplements and over-the-counter medications: $5-$50 per item

Mostly, I am left to my own devices when it comes to finding relief. To manage a flare-up immediately, I take ibuprofen or apply a cream with lidocaine directly onto the joint. I currently take three capsules of magnesium a day ($15 for 240 tablets) because it’s said to promote bone, nerve, and muscle health. My boyfriend also struggles with chronic pain and takes turmeric ($20 for 60 capsules) and fish oil ($15 for 120 capsules) supplements, which he says help, so I’m thinking of adding those into the mix.

I’ve also found success by taking CBD oil (cannabidiol), which is derived from marijuana. CBD oil is free of THC and is said to help treat a number of medical conditions, including chronic pain. I don’t notice that much of a difference when I take it, but it does provide some relief for a short period of time. The 1 fl. oz. bottle I purchased was $50, and I split the cost with my boyfriend.

The supplement that has helped me the most, however, is kratom ($40 for 70 capsules), which I also split with my boyfriend. Available in capsule or powder form, kratom comes from a plant in Southeast Asia, and it can have either stimulating or relaxing effect, depending on how much you take and what your needs are. I use it to help calm the stress and tension that often builds up in my jaw, and it seems to help, if only for a short amount of time. I take kratom right before bed because I use it as a sedative. It’s also pricey, and I only use it if the pain is particularly bad.

Potential cost of therapy: Estimated $30-$50 per session

WebMD and similar sites have recommended therapy as a treatment for pain management, or rather, how to cope with it in a healthy way. I know you shouldn’t google symptoms or treatments for your ailments, but I don’t think therapy would necessarily be a bad thing for me. I’ve been meaning to try it anyway, so why not start now? I’ve only gone as far as thinking about finding a therapist, so I don’t have any costs nailed down yet. But I did come across a service that offers affordable therapy that I hope to take advantage of soon.

*****

What I’ve come to realize is that there’s no foolproof solution to get rid of the pain on my own. I desperately need a medical professional to properly diagnose me and prescribe the best treatment for my situation. And until I have testing done, I won’t know what’s actually wrong with my jaw, which means I don’t know how much future treatments will cost. Although I’m sure my experience with chronic pain isn’t the most extreme, it’s still a near-daily burden that affects my quality of life. Future medical expenses will also affect my ability to save money, as I will most definitely have to take on medical debt.

The most frustrating aspect about my situation is that I could quickly get the help I need if I lived in a country where medical care was guaranteed to everyone, no matter your financial situation or the type of health insurance you have. I know that the implementation of single-payer health care — the ideal American health care solution in my mind — isn’t something that will happen overnight, but the system has to change for the well being of everyone in America. For now, I suppose all I can do is save my money, take the pain day-by-day, and do the things that make me happy.

Kayla Kinney is a writer based in the Chicagoland area. You can follow her on Twitter.

Image via Unsplash

  • DLo

    Best wishes for getting the help you need. I have a chronic pain condition and am extremely thankful to live in a country that provides healthcare to its citizens (Canada) in addition to the great benefits plans that both my work and my wife’s work provide. My health is STILL expensive despite these advantages and has certainly led to tears of frustration. I would have a much larger savings account otherwise. Thanks for writing this piece!

  • Summer

    I also deal with chronic pain (lower back, disc issue) and it really does affect daily life more than a lot of people might think. It’s hard not to be in a crappy mood sometimes when I’m almost *always* suffering from some level of pain or discomfort. I dealt with this on my own for about a decade in the US, it wasn’t until I moved to Germany and the problem worsened that I finally decided to seek proper treatment, which started with an MRI after a general practitioner basically said there’d be no other way to really figure out what was going on. Fortunately, I paid nothing out of pocket for that MRI, nor the subsequent appointment with the specialist to whom I brought the imaging results for analysis. I’ve paid €18 as a co-pay for a round of 6 physiotherapy sessions. I’m about to start another series of 6 appointments so I suspect I’ll be charged that €18 again, but otherwise, that’s been it and I feel *extremely* fortunate. I never felt secure about pursuing any treatment in the US because I knew the costs would be far beyond my realm of affordability.

    All that said, however, just like you mentioned with the ibuprofen and mouth guards and the other things you’ve sought on your own for relief, there have been numerous additional costs beyond the doctors’ offices. I’ve spent €120 on an inversion table so I can hang upside down to decompress my spine, orthopedic lift inserts to put in my shoe as my alignment is off enough to cause my left leg to be about a centimeter shorter than the right and thus contribute to tweaking my back, I’ve bought a special seat cushion designed for sciatic pain relief so that I can sit on flights (and at my desk during the day, for that matter), a cushion with a strap to keep it between my knees at night to aid in ensuring everything stays in alignment as best as possible, a back-specific foam roller, countless boxes of ibuprofen, even the purchase of a new mattress, which was necessary anyway (don’t buy cheap-ass IKEA spring mattresses, they top out after a year) but was certainly expedited by the fact that our old one was making my pain 10x worse. It sucks, but all this stuff becomes almost impossible not to justify buying because literally any hope of relief surpasses everything else.

    Sorry to hijack your story but thanks so much for writing this. It can be so difficult to try to explain this kind of thing and its vast impact on one’s general existence.