A mouth guard, Mr. Wanton, a pretzel & Me

Last week, I did actually have a dry mouth incident that left both Mr. Wanton and I in hysterical laughter. (If you are my mother, you should stop reading right here.) I had been to the dentist and on Friday afternoon (several hours after dental office had closed for the weekend) I put my night mouth guard on just because I was thinking about wearing it again (I hadn’t for quite awhile).

(No, Mr. Wanton did not say that to me. It would have been nice if he had though.)

Anyway, I popped it on my upper teeth. It was a bit snug but still comfortable enough. Then, I went to remove it but it wouldn’t budge. I recalled it always being a bit difficult, so I didn’t panic. Working at the edge again with my finger, I realized how dry my mouth was. I kept pulling at it, trying different locations along my upper gum line and teeth. My mouth and teeth were dry, so I started to panic a little thinking there was no lubrication between the teeth and the guard to help slide it off.

After trying to pry it off for over half an hour, I went to Mr. Wanton in the other room, and said through near tears: “I know this is ridiculous. F*** my life. What bloody next? I got my mouth guard stuck on my teeth and I cannot get it off, it’s Friday and I am going to be stuck like this until Monday when the dental office opens!”

He started to laugh, hard. I was furious at him for laughing at me, but I also realized the ridiculousness of my predicament and I started to laugh uncontrollably as well. Every time I started to say something, we’d both start laughing again. When we finally recovered, he said: “I can drive you to Dr. S’s house to get it off.” Our dentist is a “neighbour” about five miles down the country road. I said “No, I’m sure he doesn’t have dental tools at home.”

Then I saw a light bulb go on over Mr. Wanton’s head. He pulled a kitchen drawer open and took out a butter knife. Holding the knife in the air, he stepped toward me saying: “Here, I’ll do it”. Once again I burst into uncontrollable nervous laughter, but through it I managed to say: “No way, you might break my teeth! I’ll stay like this until Monday.”

(Even though I admit by then the mouth guard was feeling too tight, hurting my gums a bit, and I’m not sure if it was the stress, maniacal laughter, or the mouth guard, but I could feel a headache coming on. I knew there was no way I could possibly keep it on until Monday.)

So, Mr. Wanton said, “Fine then” and wandered off shaking his head. I went into our bedroom, sat on the bed and pried at that thing until finally I felt a glimmer of hope as over a gold crown covered tooth it finally budged enough for me to get a bit of leverage on it. Then with one desperate yank, it came off completely. Perhaps it was smoother there, or not quite as close a fit in that spot. Whew. I threw the mouth guard in the garbage.

The very next day, I took a bite of a pretzel chip, a new product I bought to try, biting it in two. The piece I bit off went to the roof of my mouth and got stuck on my palette, literally lodged there instantly. Like the previous day, I walked over to Mr. Wanton and said: “Would you believe I just got half a pretzel chip stuck on the roof of my mouth?” He started laughing, again. No matter how hard I pushed on it with my tongue it wouldn’t move. I tried water, nothing happened. He said: “Just pull it off!” I said: “Can’t you see I’m trying!” Finally after several attempts I managed to stick my finger on it, getting under an edge and dislodging it. I am now sworn off pretzels and mouth guards…for life.

(I do realize the meme says “pretzel’s” and it SHOULD be “pretzels”….either way you spell it, right or wrong, the pretzels did make me grumpy…..AND anxious.)

What hockey players and cowboys can do that I cannot…

Last year during Sjogren’s Awareness Month I posted about dry mouth symptoms. People suffer from dry mouth for a multitude of reasons. For those of us with Sjogren’s, dry mouth occurs because our own immune system attacks the moisture producing glands throughout our body, including the salivary glands. We need saliva as it has antifungal and antibacterial properties, in addition to buffering capabilities to neutralize the acid in the mouth which causes cavities.

Saliva is the moisture that is in our mouth. Some refer to it as “spit”. I won’t perpetuate any stereotypes by naming who those people might be. 😉 (Okay, changed my mind about that, when I needed a title for this blog post!) Anyway spit, or saliva, helps protect both our teeth and mouth. In addition it is the important first step in digestion as it begins the process of helping us break down food and sends it down our esophagus to our stomach. Okay, so that’s my basic biology class, human anatomy digestion 101 lesson for today.

In earlier posts I mentioned waking in the morning to painful tight muscles, stiff achy joints, and eyelids glued to corneas causing discomfort or even pain; well you can add dry mouth to my list of first symptoms of the day.

If you’ve never experienced severe dry mouth, you might think it is just a matter of being thirsty and the solution – having a long sip of water  – doing the trick. It is much more complicated. When I wake up in the morning my tongue is usually stuck to the roof of my mouth, my cheeks stuck to the sides of my teeth, and my throat often feels as though it is closing. My mouth feels parched. I am also thirsty upon waking, so I do drink water first thing when I get up to “unglue” my cheeks, tongue and throat as well as quench my thirst.

Sometimes when I wake up I discover I have developed painful mouth sores or ulcers. These are not a symptom of Sjogren’s according to my current Rheumatologist, but of Undifferentiated Connective Tissue Disease which I also was diagnosed with. Usually they occur on inside of lower lip, side of cheek, or on very back side of palette / roof of mouth. Typically they last a few days, although some are more persistent. Actually my Rheumatologist is incorrect, they are often yet another symptom  of Sjogren’s . As if we don’t already have enough pain and need more in an already uncomfortable dry mouth.

There are numerous dry mouth products available, none of which I have been too enthused about. Every mouth is different and each patient needs to try out the myriad of products to see which suits them best. There are prescription medications to stimulate salivary flow; however I am not prepared to risk the side effects of them, preferring to take my chances with meticulous dental hygiene and sipping water throughout the day.

(Please remember that none of the information I have been detailing in my blog about Sjogren’s is a substitute for medical advice. Please ensure you seek professional medical advice from your own Dentist, Doctor, and other professionals. I am strictly relating my own personal experiences.)

One thing I found to stimulate some salivary flow is massage. There are people who go specifically for massage and / or acupuncture to increase flow of saliva however you must go to someone with intensive training in the technique; unfortunately those people are few and far between. However, I have found during a regular massage, as the therapist works with lymphatic drainage technique and upward strokes of the hands up my neck and jaw I often experience what I can best describe as two miniature water fountains turning on at the back of my mouth near the jaw line. After being so dry, the feeling of sudden spurting of water in the back of one’s mouth, albeit for seconds, is wonderful.

Beyond being uncomfortable, the risks of having an extremely dry mouth include high risk of tooth decay resulting in loss of teeth and necessity of implants or dentures. The protective qualities of saliva being absent is one reason for this, another is that without saliva food adheres to the teeth easily.

Imagine eating one small cracker and trying to swallow it. Instead of it disintegrating in your mouth, and you swallowing the entire piece you instead end up with more than half the cracker stuck onto your teeth. Well, first of all with Sjogren’s you usually cannot swallow any of the cracker without water, but even after you drink the water, the rest of the cracker stays stuck on your teeth. Sometimes, even when brushing with an electric toothbrush, the food stays stuck so it takes multiple brushings to get it entirely removed. I have worn out more than a few electric toothbrushes.

Another more frightening risk of living with next to no saliva is choking on food particles. When I eat (as you can imagine as I described the food debris left behind on teeth) I don’t have saliva in my mouth to help wash food down my esophagus, so often a tiny particle of something (especially lettuce or tiny carrot particle for example) adheres to the tissue on the very back of my mouth or even in my throat. Often it is so tiny I don’t even feel it until it suddenly dislodges and I start to choke on it as it is going where it shouldn’t be “down the wrong way”, or goes part way down my esophagus then gets stuck again farther down. In Sjogren’s lack of moisture is often an issue throughout the entire body including the esophagus. The coughing episodes that follow as my body rids itself of the particle of food is not fun for me, nor has my family become used to it no matter how many times it happens.

Coming next post: a lighter look at dry mouth – because sometimes you just have to laugh at yourself.

If you wish to read previous posts I have written about my dry mouth experiences here are the links below, as well as a link to dry mouth info from the Sjogren’s Foundation:

Causes, Diagnosis, + Treatment of Dry Mouth

My post from last year: “If you can swish or spit, celebrate!”

Older post re: my diagnosis / dry mouth: “A Diagnosis that is Hard to Swallow”

If you can swish or spit, celebrate!

We take so many things for granted until we don’t have them in sufficient quantities or quality. For Sjogren’s patients that would include saliva. (And tears of course, but that’s a story for another day.)

Sometimes Sjogren’s patients still have some saliva but I have been told and have read it is of a different quality than normal. Other Sjogren’s patients have quite a large quantity remaining, so find this to be one of their lesser symptoms.

I wouldn’t say the problem of dry mouth varies too much overall in my case. It’s always bad. Though of course there are things that make it slightly better or worse such as types of foods consumed, some teas, certain toothpastes and mouthwashes (especially those containing alcohol).

There is help for dry mouth, both oral medications (a couple different types – Salagen or Evoxac), as well as over the counter products. I have never tried the oral prescription meds because they have never been recommended to me, and also they can have many side effects (lung issues, profuse sweating, etc.) Some people do not tolerate them well. I often have issues with medications so have steered clear of them so far, but would consider if I started choking frequently or developed increasingly serious oral health issues.

I have used over the counter saliva “substitutes” which I do not find pleasant. I once told a doctor it was like having someone else’s lemon flavoured spit in my mouth. It was not like saliva at all but it was a temporary solution, a bit of a fix. There are also numerous other dry mouth products such as discs and lozenges, as well as toothpastes and mouthwashes specifically formulated to help patients cope with the dry mouth symptoms. Sjogren’s patients need to be diligent about oral hygiene and have regular dental cleanings and check-ups. I love my Sonicare electric toothbrush and highly recommend it or another quality electric toothbrush for part of an excellent oral hygiene regimen.

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Oral problems that can occur due to dry mouth include overall oral discomfort (just having a very dry mouth does not feel good), tooth decay, fungal infections, difficulty swallowing dry foods (or even other foods such as lettuce, raw carrots, etc.), difficulty speaking due to tongue and lips sticking, gum disease, bad breath, teeth adhering to cheeks while sleeping, and salivary gland enlargement.

It is important to remember saliva in your mouth is the beginning of the digestive process, vital and not to be taken for granted. If you have lots, celebrate it – swish it around and remind yourself of all the good things it does for you!

NOTE: I appreciate the interest in my Sjogren’s awareness posts and the questions that have come forth over the last couple weeks. Just a reminder, these blog posts are my own experiences and not intended to be a replacement for advice from your own physician or medical specialist. It is also important to remember that symptoms and resulting treatments can vary greatly from patient to patient; that is another reason Sjogren’s Syndrome is so difficult to diagnosis and to treat.

A diagnosis that is hard to swallow…

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“If I gave you a cracker right now, could you chew and swallow it without water?”

Struck by the oddness of the question the Rheumatologist asked, I nevertheless thought about it only a fraction of a second and answered a sure “no”.

Why would he, a Rheumatologist, be asking such a question when I had been sent to him because of my ongoing complaints of sore joints, aching muscles, relentless fatigue and some vague irregularities in common blood test results?

I had seen this specialist once before. He had conducted a brief physical exam at the time, with special attention to my joints and muscles. He assured me I was completely healthy and he had no concerns. However, he sent me off to the lab that day after my appointment because he wanted a few specialized blood tests done. About ten days later he called asking me to come in to see him again for a more thorough examination, as there were some “indicators” in my lab work but he did not elaborate on what they might be.

This visit he started by looking in my mouth. I simply thought he was going to do a complete exam head to toe. After asking me about my ability to swallow a cracker he told me that my mouth was extremely dry, with barely any saliva in it all. I had never thought about it, but as he told me this, I knew he was correct.

This week someone asked me if dry mouth was the first symptom of Sjogren’s I experienced. I replied initially I thought it was not but rather it was the unrelenting fatigue alongside muscle and joint soreness that brought me to the doctor over and over again starting in my thirties. Looking back however, I suspect I may have had Sjogren’s as a teen or possibly as a child.

I remember being quite young and putting butter on my crackers when I ate them. As a teen my Mom looked at my toast and asked sarcastically, “You think you have enough butter on that?” I now realize I needed the fat on my crackers and toast so I could swallow them easily. My Mom had also wondered how I could wander around the house brushing my teeth and not be drooling frothy toothpaste all over. It is all clear now; my mouth was simply very dry for a very long time.

Further evidence of the dry mouth problem was that I had numerous cavities as a child / teen and was subjected to extensive dental work for fillings and crowns. As a young adult, my dentist said “You must have been a real grunge mouth when you were younger?” Thinking back, I realize as a youngster I was probably not as meticulous as I am now about my oral hygiene. I certainly know now how many foods adhere to my teeth; even something as simple as a single bite of a cracker or bread can cling to my teeth for hours since I have so little saliva.

Lack of saliva can increase risk of choking as well. At times I have had a miniscule piece of romaine lettuce or carrot get stuck on the lining of the back of my mouth or throat, strongly adhered, difficult to get back up or go down. Even with a drink sometimes it will cling, requiring me to eat a bite of something else in hope of it catching that fragment along with it to swallow.

The Rheumatologist had explained there were tests which could be done to confirm the Sjogren’s dry mouth diagnosis (lip biopsy, unstimulated salivary flow rate, etc.) but he said in my case they were absolutely unnecessary; a visual check combined with the blood tests, and other physical complaints was all he needed to be sure.

He explained I tested positive for ANA as well as the Sjogren’s specific antibodies SS-A, and SS-B in my blood therefore I indeed had Sjogren’s Syndrome. I had not an imaginary, psychosomatic illness, but a real one that had shown up in my blood explaining the symptoms I had been complaining about and reporting to doctors for years.

In that moment I was relieved, as well as excited to have a diagnosis at last. Little did I know then; in the coming years I would discover the diagnosis would be difficult to swallow in more ways than one.

*Note: Sjogren’s is not the only reason people experience dry mouth. Hundreds of medications (both prescription and over the counter drugs), cancer therapy, tobacco use, and nerve damage are a few of the other main causes of dry mouth. It should be noted that dry mouth is only one of many possible symptoms of Sjogren’s. For more info visit: http://www.sjogrens.org or http://www.sjogrenscanada.org