Somewhere along the way in modern healthcare, Western medicine decided to isolate specific body parts into pieces that are disconnected to the rest of the entire body. I am a dentist that treats sleep disorders and there are very few sleep patients that I believe I can help completely by simple dental appliances. Most people need a team of providers who are on the same page to get proper care that is long-lasting. For over a year, I have been studying and working with physical therapists very closely and what I have learned from them about the jaw’s relationship to the entire human body has profoundly changed how I practice dentistry.
As providers and healers, doctors, nurses, PA’s and physical therapists, etc. , had to learn in detail every individual part of the body and all its’ systems. No doubt, it is a confusing and daunting task. As doctors began to specialize, the idea that these parts constitute an entire body got lost in our modern healthcare system.
Viewing specific body parts (e.g. lungs, kidneys, the knee, etc..) in isolation from the rest of the body can be a problem, because the human body, i.e. the whole person (mind, body, and soul), is incapable of separating itself so conveniently.
Although we may experience knee pain or hip pain and decide to seek treatment for that very specific area, if questioned further most patients will admit to pain in some other or even multiple parts of their body. It’s just that today, for example, the knee pain is the worst of these maladies. If a provider asks if anything else hurts, it is not unusual for the knee pain patient to say, “Well, I’ve always had hip pain for years, my shoulders get tight when I’m on the computer and, oh yeah, sometimes my TMJ clicks or pops and I sometimes I get bad headaches, and so on and so forth.”
The body is a network of intricate systems such as muscles, bones, and ligaments (to name just a few) that work as a glorious machine that can get you from point A to point B in a straight line. Everything our body does to perform this seemingly simple task of walking, we take for granted on a daily basis.
The muscular and skeletal system, work to twist our arms, hips and legs in a reciprocating motion to allow us to move one foot in front of the other. And this is also controlled by a nervous system that helps us figure where we are in space and where we want to go. At the same time our body takes a breath with each step that may not even be noticeable unless we are walking up a steep hill. These seemingly separate systems come together like an unappreciated symphony to take us step by step to from point A to point B.
As we walk there is a reciprocating pattern our body makes. With every step we can visualize how the head actually turns opposite the rotation of the neck which is opposite the torso, which is opposite the hips which is opposite the leg. It is almost like a twisting snake. At the same time our arms are also swinging in opposite directions to balance this machine-body. This simple, easy walking is actually more complicated then we think. The grace, flow and ease of merely walking is a distinctly human performance, that the absence of this grace is what make the movements of a robot seem so inhuman. And the perfection of a step remains unimportant until some body part begins to hurt us. We can easily spot a poor gait in someone with Parkinsons or a stroke, and it mentally throws us off. When something is wrong in any of the parts of ’the snake”, we can feel it in ourselves. A stubbed toe or tear in the ACL of the knee can make us limp. Hip pain can make us walk slower. Even pain in our shoulder such as in our rotator cuff will throw off our stride.
When an injury occurs to one part of the body- machine, it will affect the entire body (even distant parts) over time as our body learns to use other muscles to compensate for the initial insult. When you have, let’s say an old childhood knee injury, your body will spend the rest of it’s life finding and recruiting other muscles to help you accomplish the task to help that knee. This compensation over time often leads to us incorporating the wrong muscles to do a simple task and the results can be seemingly inexplicable pain.
It may seem odd at first that as a dentist I should care about any of this or any part of the body that isn’t the mouth. But like a wallet in a man’s back pocket that can tilt his pelvis and lead to seemingly unrelated chronic back pain, things a dentist does to a tooth can have similar consequences. When a dental filling or crown is too high, pain to the TMJ can occur. Sometimes this can lead to pain in the neck muscles (the facial muscles are indeed connected to the neck muscles and shoulder muscles) and even this can effect the rest of the body. Your final bite or occlusion after a simple filling, full mouth rehabilitation or even after braces can impart problems in joints and muscles in body parts far away that are often never recognized as related or only discovered years later.
I believe in western medicine and I understand the need for specialization. I am grateful somebody has detailed knowledge of the kidney and the heart and specific systems. However, I also believe in the need for providers that understand the need to view patients as the entire person that they are. I’ve seen many people who suffer from sleep deprivation and after years and years of not sleeping, it is clear their problems become so much more than one provider is able to handle. According to Dr. Steven Park, chronic sleep patients often get treated for the end result of their sleep problems which can be diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity or depression. Sleep patients often don’t breathe efficiently and I even refer many of my patients to physical therapy to learn to use their diaphragms correctly!
Ultimately as a patient, you are responsible for taking care of yourself and you have to be an advocate for yourself. Finding the right doctor or nurse that truly listens can be difficult. I am grateful for the many providers I get to work with within Alaska. I love working with providers that truly understand that the knee bone is really connected to the thigh bone.