When toothache turns out to be a tumor

X-ray Photo of Matthew’s jaw with wires inserted
X-ray photo of Matthew’s jaw with wires inserted

Matthew Ladin of Dallas contacted his dentist about his nagging jaw pain, thinking it was probably just a toothache.

“It felt like I had another wisdom tooth coming in. I mentioned it to a friend who is a physician assistant and she advised me to get it checked out,” said Matthew, 38. “I called the next day. Got in that afternoon. The dentist did some X-rays. That’s when stuff started to get really weird.”

From his dental visit, he headed to the ER. Biopsies were taken and two weeks later he had major surgery that left him with his jaw wired shut for the next five weeks.

“It was a whirlwind,” he recalled.

Much more than a toothache

Matthew turned out to have a rare condition called ameloblastoma. While the jaw pain alerted him that something was wrong, the condition isn’t visible. It can only be detected through an X-ray. And by the time Matthew’s ameloblastoma was detected, his tumor was the size of a golf ball.

Ameloblastoma isn’t the same as jaw cancer or mouth cancer, head and neck cancer, nor even a bone cancer. The tumor that develops is benign − or non-cancerous − which can develop in the jawbone. It takes over cells and grows very rapidly.

We’re not sure why it develops. There are no known risk factors or causes for ameloblastoma. Matthew, for example, was in good health and had no history of smoking or dipping tobacco.

Still, ameloblastoma requires extensive surgery and a lengthy recovery.

The pain and fatigue kept Matthew away from work for months. Because his jaw was wired shut, he subsisted on a liquid diet, first through a syringe and later through a straw.

Nearly everything he ate was fruit-based, so he craved savory food by the time he could open his jaw again.

“Mashed potatoes and gravy never tasted so good,” said Matthew. “Eventually I could order a hamburger, but I started with mashed potatoes.”

Dentist visits are important for overall health

Matthew’s experience underscores the importance of making regular visits to the dentist part of an overall health prevention strategy to maintain a healthy lifestyle. We recommend that our patients visit their dentist twice a year, in part to help detect any problems as early as possible. Like most illnesses, identifying oral health problems early on makes for better outcomes.

Screening for oral cancer and other mouth maladies is taught to every dental student in the U.S. Your dentist should examine your tongue, the roof of mouth, gums, cheeks, floor of mouth, and throat. A type of X-ray called radiographs are encouraged every three years for finding disease that cannot be otherwise detected, such as tumors that develop in the bones rather than the soft tissues.

Four years after his “toothache,” Matthew now has follow-up scans every six months. He decided to share his story and in particular, hopes to encourage men to pay more attention to their health.

“When you’re 25 you feel as if you’re invincible,” said Matthew. “Men need to be more cognizant of what their body is telling them. If it hurts, it hurts for a reason.”

Facial pain that involves the mouth needs to be evaluated, including mouth sores if they persist. Most likely, the source will be strictly a dental problem. The number one most common source of facial pain is toothache after all. But face or jaw pain can be caused by many other oral problems such as infection, joint dysfunction, even nerve issues or more serious disease. 

So don’t skip your regular dental check up – or any health maintenance. Your dentist or health care provider may find something unexpected that could save your life.

 

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