Managing a health condition during my PhD

This post is a hard one to write, let alone to share it. But, managing chronic pain and mental health are a big part of my PhD journey at the moment. We all have our obstacles and challenges during a PhD and this is one of mine.

My life with TMD

Temporomandibular disorder (TMD) is a condition affecting the movement of the jaw. It’s not usually serious and can get better on its own. But for me, just over 6 years ago, my left jaw joint was locked closed and I had surgery to fix it. Up until about a year ago, surgery left me jaw pain free. I don’t remember if something triggered it, but my right jaw joint started giving me pain and discomfort. Over the past year it’s gradually got more painful and disruptive. In the summer, I was referred back to my maxillofacial surgeon for some investigations. My MRI scan was normal (i.e. no obvious cause for my pain) but I’m going to try physiotherapy and there are other treatment options that I could try in the future.

The pain affects my life; mainly my eating and my ability to talk. Talking is painful, especially talking loudly or passionately – singing is also a no-no. I can’t chew food and generally have a soft diet, such as soup and yogurt. I love talking and I love eating, which makes it even harder. Before, I took it for granted that I could just eat what I wanted and talk freely. Although, since my last surgery I have avoided certain chewy foods anyway.

I find relaxation techniques and heat packs help with the pain. Apologies for the unflattering picture! But this is me at the office sometimes with my heated eye mask which I put around my jaw. I don’t particularly like taking pain killers as I find they don’t really help me much and have other side effects to manage. Recently I’ve also been getting help through the university counselling service to come to terms with the changes and manage the TMD during my PhD.

PhD life with TMD

Ok, just eat soft food and don’t talk too much, that’s doable and manageable, right? But then I think about my PhD. I have supervision meetings every two weeks, I have colleagues that I want to talk to in the office, I want to teach, I want to present my work… How can I possibly do all this not being able to talk for more than 5 minutes without feeling immense pain and aching in my face?

It’s been a struggle so far and I’m still learning and working out how to manage it. I’m pushing through and asking for all the help I can to be able to continue with my studies. I must add that my supervisors have been amazingly supportive and extremely accommodating. We’ve started having Skype chat supervision meetings and I’ve been pre-recording (in small chunks) what I want to say in face-to-face meetings. I’ve also been getting better at sharing my struggles with my colleagues who have been so kind and compassionate.

I’ve shared before about dealing with stress while doing a PhD and all these things still help me now. I am getting better with managing the pain and overcoming general day-to-day obstacles.

The future

In terms of the future and career plans, I haven’t thought that far ahead yet. I don’t know if the physiotherapy will help or if one day I’ll need surgery again. I’m determined to finish my PhD and I’ve accepted that for now I can’t present or teach in the traditional way. Saying no to these opportunities has been really difficult, but it’s for the best at the moment so I can focus on me and my PhD. However, I’m looking for any suggestions or ideas about alternative ways for presenting my work and teaching without doing too much talking. I really want to stay in academia after my PhD and would love to teach, but at the moment I’m not sure how my health condition will affect this (EDIT: Read about my switch to part-time on Thriving Part Time)

During a PhD there are ups and downs. If you’re having one of those downs, you’re not alone and of course be sure to celebrate all ups! I feel that there’s this unrealistic expectation that we should all be robots, enjoying our PhD experience and sharing our achievements and publications. Share the hard times too! Getting though those times are massive achievements to celebrate!

Thank you for reading! Please get in touch or comment below if you have any suggestions, thoughts or questions. I would love to hear from you!

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5 thoughts on “Managing a health condition during my PhD”

  1. I’ve just read this and I’m glad I’m not the only one struggling! I’ve just been ‘diagnosed’ with fibromyalgia and I’m now waiting for a referral appointment to a rheumatologist. I am worn out! Whilst I wouldn’t wish a long term condition, I am being selfish in the fact I get some comfort that I’m not the only one in pain. Hope your pain gets sorted as best it can. And keep going with the PhD! Xx

    1. Thank you Rachel! I completely get it and it’s not selfish at all! I’m glad you know you’re not alone. Also, it’s so exhausting waiting for appointments, I hope you get the help you need asap! xx

  2. Really good and brave you are sharing your story Laura. All the best and take care for now. I am sure you will get where you want to be. BW, kim

    1. Thanks Kim! It was a hard one to share, but I am so glad I did. The response and support I’ve had has been phenomenal. I hope that this post helps other people managing health conditions and a PhD! x

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