All for that toothsome smile

What is the root cause that makes people nervous about dental appointments?

March 03, 2017 04:35 pm | Updated 04:35 pm IST - Thiruvananthapuram

Illustration: Sreejith R Kumar

Illustration: Sreejith R Kumar

Ever tried to speak with your mouth wide open while someone was squirting water in and tinkering with your teeth simultaneously? No, this wasn’t any party game or at the circus, but something dead serious - an experience at the dental clinic. No doctor inspires fear as much as a dentist; you need nerves of steel to keep an appointment with him, even when he’s your good friend. The gloved and masked doctor, the awe-inspiring chair, the array of gleaming equipment, the light overhead and the bin close by are all calculated to send you into panic mode.

Shakespeare was on target when he said, ‘...there was never yet philosopher that could endure the toothache patiently.’ And when even philosophers can’t suffer toothache with equanimity, what would those like me who can’t philosophise to resuscitate a dying aunt do? Hold the swollen cheek in anguish, wail and hail the services of a competent dentist.

Close encounter

The dentist peered into my mouth and his jaw fell on sighting the riches lurking within. My mouth was a practical text book of dental problems; a dental student’s delight. Remnants of previous repairs gone wrong rubbed teeth and gums with new problems.

‘Hmm! Cavities, caries, cracks on the cap!’ he exclaimed. ‘How alliterative!’ I thought, open-mouthed.

He continued like a seasoned detective, ‘I see evidence of bridging, filling, capping, extractions...’ ‘Braces and root canal treatment too,’ I added inarticulately.

He began a close examination of my teeth and gums. ‘Too much brushing,’ he frowned. ‘When your brushing leaves you discontented, then it’s good for your teeth, but if you feel satisfied with your brushing, it isn’t good.’ I was baffled. That Shakespearean philosopher who couldn’t endure the toothache might have made sense of it but I spent the rest of the session working it out in my head.

‘Too many extractions,’ he sounded disapproving. ‘One must try to save teeth.’ ‘Too late,’ I slurred. ‘Those dental college house surgeons probably practised extraction on my teeth when I was in high school.’ ‘Tartar!’ he cried. ‘Where?’ I whirled my head, alarmed, visualising an armed warrior in the vicinity. ‘Stay still. Tartar. Plaque. On your teeth. They need to be cleaned.’ I thought he had just said I brush too much, but with all those dental tools in my mouth, I was ill-equipped to contradict him. A whirring sound signalled the start of the cleaning procedure. Instinctively I clenched my fists. ‘Relax,’ he urged.

How do I relax when an intimidating needle has embarked on a conducted tour over my teeth? Any time the drill could touch a nerve and send shock waves down my nervous system. As if on cue, it did. ‘Ah!’ I winced in pain. ‘Ha! You have sensitive teeth!’ His tone was almost congratulatory. ‘But don’t move, your tongue will get cut,’ he cautioned. That worked and I froze like a wax model.

An X-ray confirmed I needed root canal treatment and he scheduled it for the following Friday, showing his excellent teeth in a grin to inform me it would be a very lengthy procedure, as if a delightful picnic was in store.

Work in progress

On Friday, once the anaesthesia took effect, he began the carpentry work. The machine sounded like a saw hewing through my teeth. ‘The bridge has to be broken,’ he explained. Breaking bridges is no mean feat. I was impressed and decided to co-operate, an easy decision for the right side of my mouth was numb, but I could still sense the sawing and the levelling, the probing and the prodding that was going on.

Plonk! A fake tooth fell. ‘We’ll make a new bridge. Not silver this time, but your tooth’s colour. Natural.’ ‘White? I asked, hopefully. ‘No, the exact same colour of your tooth. Yellow.’ I had asked for that. The whole procedure took ages and finally, jaws stiff, I crawled away with another appointment fixed.

Once the bridging was done, I thought it was all over. ‘You can chew anything except gum. And after meals, prise out the food particles lodged between teeth,’ the dentist advised. ‘I always do. With a safety pin.’ I smiled. ‘Pin?’ He was horrified; his tone indicated he had finally discovered the reason for the poor state of my teeth. ‘Use a tooth pick. And wait, I need to repair a cracked tooth.’ So there I was, mouth open again, water being squirted in and an instrument drilling into my tooth. ‘The crowning is next week.’ It isn’t always queens who are crowned. But I couldn’t even say, ‘Wow!’


(A fortnightly column by the city-based writer, academic and author of the Butterfingers series)

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