“I lost my facial expressions and my life until Holly House’s expert surgeon came to my rescue.”
A semi-professional ice hockey player who unexpectedly woke up unable to laugh or eat properly said she now has her life and expressions back after undergoing expert surgery at Holly House Hospital.
Val Bennett, 48, from Hertfordshire woke up in April 2012 in pain and said she felt as though she had been ‘punched in the face’ – but unknown to her she was suffering from a rare jaw condition. Just weeks later Val’s mouth would only open by a small finger width, just two centimetres – less than half its normal amount.
The mother-of-two, who is also the assistant captain and centre for Chelmsford Cobras’ ice hockey team, said she was bemused as she hadn’t injured herself and always wears stout protective sport equipment during matches. Val said: “I have been playing ice hockey for ten years and when I woke up in pain my initial reaction was ‘did I get hit last night? But, we wear a cage over our face to protect us and I’ve never injured my face before, so I was confused.”
Val went to her dentist who gave her a splint that she had to sleep in, but life was becoming increasingly difficult for her. She added: “I had to take my time eating and my whole face was sore. I couldn’t laugh or scream as this would involve sudden movement and my jaw would click. It was really embarrassing, especially if I was in company or out having a meal as I had to eat very carefully and very slowly. I manage my own letting agency in London and so I am always on the phone and meeting clients – but talking was hard and I couldn’t express myself properly or laugh. I had to try and remain calm and I was worried I could go into full lock jaw at any moment.”
After six months of suffering and seeing various doctors and dentists Val was referred to Mr Nayeem Ali, Consultant Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeon at Holly House Hospital. Mr Ali carried out x-rays and an MRI scan which showed that a disc of cartilage, that is a normal part of the jaw joint, had become detached and stuck in the wrong position, blocking movement of the jaw joint. This condition, which is grouped under the term Internal Derangement of the Temporomandibular Joint (TMJ), is quite uncommon and Mr Ali operates on around six cases a year.
Val added: “I knew Mr Ali had previously worked with Great Britain’s field hockey team captain, Kate Walsh, when she broke her jaw during the London 2012 Olympics, so I knew I was in good hands, and immediately felt at ease.” Mr Ali made a special protective mask for Kate to wear during the Olympics which allowed her to continue competing, instead of having up to three months off injured, and ultimately helping to bring home the coveted bronze medal for Great Britain.
Mr Ali said: “There is no real reason why Val’s condition occurs and it could affect anybody at any time. It is a mechanical problem with the jaw joint which has a complicated and unique structure. The small disc of cartilage is a little bigger than a 1p piece and allows us to open our mouths wide, but if it detaches then the jaw function is greatly reduced. Jaw symptoms such as joint pain, clicking and intermittent temporary locking which come under TMJ disorders are very common, but complete permanent dislocation of the disc, often referred to as ‘closed lock’, that Val suffered from only occurs in a small percentage. It’s a condition that expert surgeons are aware of but it’s not known to the general public. Val had been to see several doctors and dentists before coming to Holly House and was at her wits end by the time I saw her as her condition had gone undiagnosed until we were able to carry out a MRI scan with our specialist equipment.”
“By the time she came to me her jaw had been completely stuck for several months and she could only open her mouth by a fingers width, if we had not operated it would have remained like this. In cases which are locking intermittently we can often carry out minimally invasive surgery using a tiny camera (arthroscopy), but in Val’s case we had to perform open joint surgery. Nationwide there is not a huge number of these operations carried out, it’s an uncommon procedure. I’d estimate that nationally there are only a couple of hundred of these operations carried out yearly.”
Mr Ali carried out the surgery by making an incision along the inside of Val’s right ear, extending into the hairline. The joint was then opened and the cartilage disc pulled back and stitched into place and some bone trimmed to reshape the joint socket. Mr Ali added: “The incision is one that is commonly used for facelifts and so leaves no visible scar and means Val is now completely cured and can get back to a happier life.”
Val continued: “I woke up after the one and a half hour operation and I was amazed as I was able to eat, laugh, or even scream if I wanted to straight away – something I hadn’t been able to do for six months! I couldn’t believe it, I expected I would still be sore but I wasn’t and there was no bruising, it felt incredible to finally have my life and expressions back again.”