Your Dental Health?
Confessions of a Dental Phobic Health Writer
by Janice Hughes, Share Guide Editor
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Ever since a very bad experience in childhood with an incompetent dentist, I have been extremely afraid of them. In fact, years would go by between visits. So when I experienced a severe toothache last month, I thought it might be my dental karma coming back to haunt me.
Since my husband and most of my friends do go to the dentist regularly, I thought I was the exception, and was surprised to find out that less than half of adult Americans visit the dentist on a regular basis--and much less than that amongst the low-income population. This contrasts sharply with visits to the doctor: 84% of Americans had at least one doctor visit in 2004 (the most recent year for which the National Center for Health Statistics has compiled statistics on this subject).
I knew that I was neglecting an important part of my health (after all, I do publish a holistic health magazine!) but that knowledge was not enough to overcome my fear. It was pain, that great universal motivator, that finally got me to the dentist's office.
My experience with my own little dental nightmare made me want to research and write about dental health. I wanted to share this with you for two reasons: First, dental health has long been overlooked by many of us who pay close attention to many other aspects of our health. (I'm certainly guilty; in the 20 years of The Share Guide I think we've only covered the topic twice.) Second, and no less significant, is the emotional aspect: why are so many people deathly afraid of going to the dentist? Of course it's unpleasant, but so are visits to the doctor. Is there something lacking in the way that dentists and their staffs relate to patients? If my experience is any indication, then the answer is definitely yes.
My own case certainly illustrates a lack of compassion on the part of two out of three of the dentists I ended up consulting. First, I saw a general dentist, recommended by a friend of mine as guaranteed to be nice and sympathetic to a big baby like me. He was terrific (Dr. David Etchell in Santa Rosa), and did quite a bit to alleviate my anxiety on that first visit. However, the problem I had did not show up on his X-ray and the pain medication he prescribed didn't work. (And the antibiotics took a while to kick in.) Unfortunately, I saw this dentist late on a Friday, and by Saturday I was in agony. I tried calling his voice mail service, but no luck. The only thing that saved me was that my brother happens to be a dentist out of state, and I was able to call him and get advice over the phone. He told me I could take up to 800mg of Ibuprofin (Advil or Motrin) every 8 hours. This is a high dosage and it's not listed on the bottle. I would never have known to try this, but it was more effective than the prescription pain meds and got me through the weekend.
This leads me to ask: Why isn't there a better system for dealing with dental emergencies? I could have been stuck going to the emergency room and waiting for hours. Lord knows, a bad toothache is a real emergency!
Once I finally got ahold of the dentist on Monday, he thought I needed a root canal, so he referred me to someone else. That second dentist was pretty callous and had no compassion at all. He summarily announced that he couldn't help me; my tooth was cracked and had to come out. (Luckily, he did have one very sweet staff member who helped calm me down and find a referral for yet another specialist who could handle the extraction.)
My experience with my third dentist (the specialist who extracted my cracked molar) was by far the most traumatic. But it did not need to be, and that's my point. The actual work they did was very fast and efficient, and all it would have taken was 5-10 minutes to show some compassion towards my mental/emotional state and the whole experience would have been dramatically different.
The visit started with a consultation with the dentist. He made weird jokes and in response to my stated fear, basically told me I should be thankful because in his day they used to work on patients without novocaine and you just had to tough it out. He spoke so fast, and his answers to my questions were so clipped, that I only understood maybe half of what he said. Luckily, his office did send me home with printed instructions, and it's a good thing, or I wouldn't have had a clue what to expect afterwards or what to do (or not do).
Once they were ready to perform the extraction, one of his assistants led me down the hall. Another assistant put me in this big, intimidating dental chair (no one even said Hi or looked at me), then hooked me up to all these machines, tilted the chair back so fast I nearly got vertigo, and put a big oxygen mask over my face…and left me there alone for 10 minutes while I cried and trembled and tried to get ahold of myself. Thankfully, I opted for general anesthesia and once that took effect it was all over for me. I woke up and it was done. But if they had just said a friendly Hello, told me what to expect, and calmly explained what they were doing, I think the whole experience would have been a lot easier. (And I am not nearly that dental phobic, mind you, compared to some people I've read about.)
My recent experiences with dentists leave me thinking: So that's why people don't want to go! But I'm sure that there are nice dentists out there (Dr. Etchell and his staff were very kind), and after researching the issue more, I am determined to get myself on a regular dental visit schedule.
This leads me to my second point: too often we ignore our dental health. We wait until we are in pain and then the situation is often serious. Many of us deem dental health of low importance considering the high prevalence of such life-threatening conditions as cancer, heart disease, diabetes, stroke, etc. Yet the evidence is clear that oral infectious diseases such as periodontitis actually increase your risk for cardiovascular, cerebrovascular, and lung disease, and exacerbate diabetes. It can even be an early indicator of osteoporosis.
Leading Causes of Poor Dental Health:
* Tobacco use
* Excessive Alcohol use
* Drug use (crack, heroin, PCP, etc)
* Prescription Medications - studies show that 75-94% of patients taking medications are taking at least one drug that may have an oral side effect.
* Dietary Choices - foods high in sugar, obviously (especially candy and soda) but even high carbohydrate diets can make a difference in dental health.
* Poor Oral Hygiene - lack of flossing or brushing regularly; not visiting the dentist for annual cleaning.
What we call "cavities" dental professionals refer to as "caries," which derives from cariosus, the Latin word for rotten. A cavity is not just a hole in the tooth but actually a late manifestation of a bacterial infection. And serious infections in the mouth can affect many other vital systems, such as the cardiovascular and renal systems, and even the brain.
You may think that having "work done" on your mouth is inevitable, but that's not necessarily true. Although genetics does play a significant role in how likely this is, there are also lifestyle choices you can make that will significantly affect your chances of needing a root canal, tooth extraction, or other procedure.
You might also be wondering: what can lead to a cracked tooth, such as I experienced? It's actually extremely common, and could have happened whether I went to the dentist regularly or not. But since it was not diagnosed, I ended up with a severe infection developing deep in the crack, and that's what caused the extreme pain I experienced.
Common Causes of Cracked Teeth:
* Clenching your teeth (usually stress)
* Grinding your teeth in your sleep (if you do this you should really wear a mouth guard)
* Chewing hard things such as ice
* Drinking very hot and then very cold liquids close together.
It turns out that cracks and fractures are fairly difficult to diagnose because the pain comes and goes, and cracks/fractures only rarely show up on x-rays. That's why I had to see 3 dentists before they were sure what was going on. So that's another reason for the regular visits to the dentist--catch things early, and you're less likely to experience severe pain. There's almost nothing worse than a bad toothache!
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