Rescuing the Jaws of Life: TMJD and Karate

Whitney and Mouthguard

A post by architect and writer Whitney Morrill:

As we age, does life bring a greater amount of stress, or do we just get lamer at managing it?

I pondered this question with my dentist’s hands in my mouth.

He was fitting me for a mouth guard because at age forty-three, I started clenching my jaw at night.

My teeth were holding up okay, but I was waking at 2 AM with terrible ear pain, akin to the ruptured eardrums of childhood. I resorted to (barely) sleeping upright at night, and wearing a Boppy nursing pillow around my neck to keep pressure off of my ears.

However sexy this get-up, it wasn’t sustainable.

I scheduled an appointment with my dentist, who determined I had Temporomandibular Joint Disorder (TMJD). In other words, I was experiencing pain and inflammation in the joint that allows the jaw to rotate and slide.

The involuntary jaw clenching that led to my TMJD was in turn caused by stress. As a residential architect in a housing-driven recession, I’ve had my share of worry in recent years.

Add on motherhood, and a husband with a start-up company, and you have a jaw ripe for clenching.

Whereas some people overeat as a way of coping with uncertainty, my jaw just thought it was overeating. Night after night while I slept, it ground away on….what?

A phantom side of beef?

An illusory log of taffy?

In the mornings at breakfast, my jaw would audibly click out of alignment, sending a groan and shudder around the table.

Fortunately, TMJD isn’t the worst condition to have because it’s treatable. The mouth guard my dentist designed separates my upper and lower dentitions, like a shock absorber. So I’m gratefully pain-free.

The bigger challenge is reducing the stress that causes TMJD in the first place.

After some trial and error, I’ve found that for me, the answer lies with a different kind of mouth guard: the kind you wear when you fight in a ring.

Have you ever seen posters of Bruce Lee and thought, “That is so me.”

Neither had I, until a) my second grade daughter was bullied in school (grind, grind), and b) my family enrolled in martial arts classes to learn self-defense.

We opted for karate, since both my husband and I have lived in Japan. The word “karate” translates to “empty hand,” but if I were the inventor of Japanese, I’d give it the meaning, “fight men; clench less.”

As part of my training, I joined an adult sparring class that pits me, the lone female, against a room full of big men.

I kick. I punch. I blitz. I lose nearly every match I fight. But I keep my teeth, and leave with enough endorphins to ensure a night of idle jaws.

The beauty of sparring is that it’s a socially acceptable way to wail on people. Or more broadly, to wail on life. It’s a chance to see measurable progress for effort applied, and to experience something linear when family and work circumstances zig and zag unpredictably.

Do I confuse my two mouth guards?


Usually not, but I confess that I regularly misplace both of them around the house. As I dig through my belongings searching for the silicone crescents, I imagine one day taking them on an old-time Grand Tour.

Oh look, there they are in front of the Roman Forum.

And my, don’t they look dapper next to Chartres Cathedral!

A little far-fetched? Maybe.

But chew on this: I won’t leave home without them.

WWM head shot

Whitney Woollerton Morrill, a.k.a .The Coconut Girl, is an architect, writer, and mother of two. She designs and writes for families with children. Her interest in supporting new mothers leads to wack creative offerings, such as music videos, and shopping channel spoofs. Find her at and

The Mouth Guards:  Karate  mouth guard is on the left; nighttime mouth guard is on the right.

13 thoughts on “Rescuing the Jaws of Life: TMJD and Karate”

  1. This was fabulously funny and though I don’t have TMJ, (but the potent writing has me sympathizing) the latter part of this post just cracked me up and brought me back to my teenage years and all the exotic places my retainer traveled and eventually resided, much to the shock of the people (mostly motel maids, I imagine) who found it.. In a glass of water, no less. An exotic flesh colored fish? Thank you for this guest post.


    1. Thanks for the kind words! I love the image of your retainer traveling around and being discovered by unsuspecting bystanders–hilarious! Crazy to think our highly-personal and specific artifacts are probably still in the world somewhere…but where?


    1. I love hearing about everyone’s nocturnal coping strategies. Mouth-breathing is alluring, Haralee, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise! (I’m feeling a mock-lingerie catalog coming on. Who’s in?)


  2. I was diagnosed with TMJ in 2002 and also had a mouth guard made that I needed to wear all the time or my jaw would ache. I had determined that there was a hormonal component to the jaw pain (worse around period time), but the dentist disregarded that observation because it didn’t fit with his view that the fix was structural. He had big plans for my mouth ($$$). A chemical component simply did not compute in his brain. That is when I stopped accepting treatment from him. Coincidentally, around the same time I switched to a Paleo diet. Within 3 days I was able to take the mouth guard out and have never had to wear it again.


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